Archive for November, 2009

And I thought it was pretty cool that Nebraska produced financial guru Warren Buffett, screenwriter Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election), and actor Marlon Brando, but now I’ve learned that ScriptGirl was born and partially raised in Nebraska (and has strong enough ties there to spend Thanksgiving in the Cornhusker state this year). And on top of that she was an Art History major at the University of Iowa.

I always thought that if Diablo Cody wouldn’t have broken through with Juno she would have evolved into something like ScriptGirl. (Actually, they are the same age so I imagine they attended the University of Iowa at the same time. Interesting.)  ScriptGirl for the uninitiated is the persona of a sexy librarian/farm girl-type turned savvy Hollywood script sale reviewer. While she doesn’t cover her breasts much she does a fine job covering recent script sales in an informative and entertaining way.

Her coverage (and lack of coverage) has helped her build a fan base of  around 8,000 You Tube subscribers (one video currently has 890,846 views). She is also well covered on the social media front including Facebook, Myspace, and twitter. Quentin Tarantino is said to be a fan.

So what prepared ScriptGirl for her online success?

“I didn’t go to film school. I studied art history. But, like so many others, I was drawn to the movie business and came to Los Angeles. I’ve tried or suffered through a lot of different industry jobs. But screenwriting to me was always the ultimate destination. After a couple years of flailing around, I managed to find an agent who liked my romantic comedy and shopped it around. It was optioned by the production company of an actor I shall not name, and I had some meetings on other projects. It was a pretty heady time for this Thai/German farmgirl from Nebraska. But before I could even put a down payment on a Prius, the rom-com was out on its keister, promises of other jobs dried up, and I was back to the harsh reality of 9-5 living.”
Interview with Kim Townsel

I’m not sure how much of a moneymaker it is for the small team that puts together ScriptGirl (there are You Tube ads and the occasional product placement of Red Bull or Final Draft) but it has to be good exposure. ScriptGirl now has a regular column at Script magazine. From a screenwriter’s perspective it’s a succinct way to follow script sales and it’s always encouraging to hear ScriptGirl’s closing words; “You can’t sell it if you don’t write it.”

So if you’ve never seen the Bellview/Omaha, Nebraska native (and Iowa educated) ScriptGirl in action, welcome to her world. (In case you’re wondering, Bellview is just across the river from Iowa. I’m starting to think this Midwest thing is becoming trendy.)

BTW-Did you know that when Alexander Payne was growing up in Omaha that Warren Buffett was actually a neighbor? And did you know Warren Buffett and Jimmy Buffett are distantly related?

Related Posts:

The Juno-Iowa Connection

Screenwriting from Nebraska

Scott W. Smith

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“A historic, music-affirming extravaganza. Hail, hail rock ‘n’ roll.”

Tonight HBO will broadcast the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert that was taped back in October. The concert features a solid line-up of Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, U2,  Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown, James Taylor, Smokey Robinson, John Fogerty, B.B. King, Sting, Billy Joel and other rock giants.

And while all those musicians are on stage they will be under a touch of Cedar Falls, Iowa. Artist Gary Kelley was commissioned to create a multi-panel mural that arched above the stage at Madison Square Garden.

Kelley’s studio is just a couple blocks from my office and it’s fun to drop in from time to time and see what he’s working knowing it could be something for Rolling Stone magazine or another national venue. Kelley is most known for his murals of writers at Barnes & Nobel Booksellers across the county and in 2007 he was elected into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame.

One more example of great work coming from the middle of nowhere.

If you’re interested in purchasing Kelley’s artwork contact the Henry W. Myrtle Gallery.

Scott W. Smith

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It’s funny when you pick an area to focus on what you can uncover.

First I learned that screenwriter/producer/director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Night at the Museum, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) was from the Youngstown, Ohio area.

Then I learned that the producer Paula Wagner (Mission Impossible, Vanilla Sky, Valkyrie)  was born and raised in the Youngstown area.

Now I learn that E.T. was from Youngstown. Okay, technically E.T. was from space, but one of the key  personnel responsible for being inside one of the E.T.’s was 2’10” Pat Bilon of Youngstown, Ohio. There were many people (and actually several E.T.’s) responsible for E.T.’s movements depending on what was needed. Tamara De Treaux and Matthew De Meritt also wore E.T. suits, but according to Fred Skidmore, spokensman of Universal Studios, “Pat did do the majority of the movie.”

Bilon worked as dispatcher for the Mahoning Country Sheriff’s Department when he was discovered by a casting director at a Little People of America conference. He first appeared in Under the Rainbow that starred Chevy Chase. Upon auditioning for Steven Spielberg he was reportedly cast within a day.

His role in making E.T. move required him to wear the E.T. suit up to six hours a day with no ventilation. After the movie was released Bilon told Roma Sochan Hadzewycz that his favorite scene to play was a chase scene on a bike, “I was in a yoga position in the basket of Elliot’s bike, and a truck with a camera was pulling the bike. I couldn’t see how fast we were going, but I could feel the breeze and I could tell it was very fast.”

E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial was released in 1982 and in January 1983 it passed Star Wars at the #1 all-time box office champ. (It is currently #5 domestically.) Sadly, also in January of 1983 Pat Bilon died. But what a journey he must of had.

So while you’re dreaming (in between your writing), why not shoot for the moon?

Scott W. Smith

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The book that inspired Bruce Springsteen to write the song Youngstown on his The Ghost of Tom Joad album is Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass. The book was written by Dale Maharidge with photography by Michael Williamson. The book was out of print when the album came out in 1995, but the publishers reprinted the book with an intro by Springsteen who wrote, “I read it in one sitting and I lay awake frightened by its implications.”

The book has also inspired a film being developed by writer/director Aaron J. Wiederspahn at either/or films called Someplace Like America. My path crossed with Wiederspahn years going when we both lived in Orlando. Wiederspahn now lives in New Hampshire and his first film was The Sensation of Sight starring David Strathairn. He’s doing his part to make films outside the Hollywood norm.

There is also a documentary being produced called Finding Someplace Like America that retraces with Maharidge and Williamson the places they first visited 25 years ago as they looked at the homeless and disenfranchised in America. As our economy struggles in this country for the past year or so it’s sobering to look at an area that’s been in a recession for about 30 years.

Maharidge and Williamson also have a book that looks at the social economic issues closer to my home,  Denison, Iowa: Searching for the Soul of America Through the Secrets of a Midwest Town.

Scott W. Smith

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Happy Thanksgiving.

Before I take a circuitous route to point out yet one more connection between Youngstown and Hollywood let me first thank everyone for reading this screenwriting blog as it’s given me much encouragement in my quest to post daily. It’s not easy to write something original daily and finding odd connections really is a fun part of the process. Today is a good example.

My favorite movie with a Thanksgiving theme is Pieces of April. Granted, I don’t think there is a long list of films with Thanksgiving themes. So let me add that it’s also one of my favorite low-budget films of all time.  Odd or relevant connection to Screenwriting from Iowa? Number one: Pieces of April writer/director Peter Hedges grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. Number Two: My recent posts have centered around Ohio, and Pieces of April stars Katie Holmes who grew up in Toledo.

But can I get from Toledo to Youngstown which has technically be the focus of recent blogs? Yes, but I have to take the indirect route via Cincinnati. Katie Holmes is married to Tom Cruise who lived for a time in Cincinnati as a teenager. The agent that got Cruise his breakout role in Risky Business was raised in Youngstown. That agent Paula Wagner, eventually became Cruise’s producing partner including all the Mission Impossible movies, Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai.

What prepared Wagner to become one of the most powerful women in Hollywood?  Being born Paula Kaufman in Youngstown back in 1946 didn’t hurt. Just this month she returned to Youngstown for the first time in 30 years to give a talk at Youngstown State University and said, “I really attribute so much of what I’ve done to having grown up in this city…Youngstown is very much a part of me.”

Her father was a fighter pilot in World War II and also a prisoner of war, and went on to run a steel mill in Youngstown. “Youngstown was founded on steel and we all have a spine of steel,” said Wagner at her Youngstown talk. It was at the Youngstown Playhouse where Wagner began acting as a child. (The same place advertising giant Mary Wells began acting at age 5.) She was known as a talented actress at Hubbard High School and then earned a BFA in theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (just a little over an hour’s drive from Youngstown).

Wagner performed on Broadway and off-Broadway before heading to Los Angeles with $500. to her name. She ended up being an agent at Creative Artists Agency where her clients included  Demi Moore, Val Kilmer and Oliver Stone. She formed Cruise/Wagner Productions in 1993 and the films they have produced together have earned around $3 billion at the box office.

And I thought it was impressive that former Youngstown resident and current producer/director/writer Chris Columbus (The Goonies, Home Alone, and the first two Harry Potter movies) had a box office total over $1 billion. Is there another small city in America where people raised there went on to have a key role in movies that have earned around $4 billion?

Most recently Wagner has started a new company Chestnut Ridge Productions and is slated to produce the film version of Miss Saigon. What’s the significance of the name of her new company? Guy D’Astolfo reports, “Paula Wagner’s Hollywood career has taken her around the world, but she keeps coming back to Chestnut Ridge. That’s the road she grew up on in Hubbard Township”

So if you’re a screenwriter from the Youngstown area use that back of steel to get connect with Wagner. Remember, there’s no place like home.

By the way, if you’d like to see what Youngstown looked like back around the time Wagner was born watch the 15 minute movie Steel Town that Mike Gaunter, a news producer in Youngstown sent my way via You Tube.

Scott W. Smith

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Then smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay
Bruce Springsteen/Youngstown

Do you have an idea bank? A file or notebook full of articles and ideas that you’d like to explore and develop further? I have several notebooks and one of them I stumbled upon yesterday happens to tie in directly with the last couple posts on Youngstown, Ohio.

It was an article on a guy named Reece.  He’s an Ohio legend. He rushed for over 4,000 yards and scored 52 touchdowns playing high school football. His senior year he was named Ohio’s Mr. Football and USA Today’s national offensive player of the year.

He received a scholarship to Ohio St. University where he helped the team to an undefeated season and scored the winning touchdown in a national championship game to give Ohio State its first title in 35 years.

Reece gave a little pride to a part of the Rust Belt that has struggled for years. According to Nancy Armour in an AP article back in ’06 Reece, “grew up in gritty Youngstown, in a neighborhood on the hard and unforgiving south side. The steel mills and factories that once provided jobs for generations of families are long gone, and little good has replaced them.”

The area sounded like a lot of inner cities in the United States. By the time Reece graduated from high school he had already been to 10 funerals of his classmates. There are reports that he avoid the gangs, didn’t go to parties, and didn’t drink or do drugs. He had a gift and he was protecting it from the elements of the streets.

But Reece had no sooner finished celebrating being part of a national championship team when he fell off the mountaintop. Reece dreamed of playing in the NFL and at one time it looked like a sure bet, but as of this writing he sits in a prison in Ohio for a string of crimes.

It’s a familiar story. From King David, to Macbeth, to Bernie Madoff the story looks the same. The rise and fall of the powerful never fails to grab our imaginations.

If the name Reece doesn’t ring a bell maybe his given name does—Maurice Clarett.

The best thing about Clarett’s story is he’s still young.  He’s working on his college degree in prison. He’s only 26 so the story hasn’t ended yet. I’m pulling for him because I love stories of redemption. When I look at my favorite films the majority have redemptive themes.

In fact, Clarett is imprisoned in Toledo, Ohio just about 100 miles away from the Mansfield, Ohio prison used in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

And I also have a sentimental tie-in to Clarett in that my mom and dad met at Ohio State, and I have an uncle who played football there back in the day. I grew up watching Woody Hayes coached teams. And I have a soft spot in my heart for Youngstown because it’s where my father grew-up.

I want to see some films set in Youngstown.  From the historic rise of the steel mills to their bitter closing, to the rebuilding process and the thriving arts community, there are stories to be told from there. Any town that’s lived through an unemployment rate of almost 25% has learned lessons that could help the rest of America at this time.

Any town that has had the influence of English, German, Irish, Scottish, Welch, Polish, Italian, Hungarians, etc. has to have some gripping stories. I’ve read that Youngstown was called the “melting pot that never melted,” and that it was common for steel mills to be divided into ethnic groups. There are stories to tell.

Youngstown is a fascinating town that at one time or another was known for pawnshops, a mafia presence, and a breeding ground for some of the greatest coaches in college football. (Florida’s Urban Myers, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, and OSU’s Jim Tressel are just a few from in and around the area.)  It’s an area surrounded by beautiful gentle rolling hills that at one time in the 90s was called the “murder capital of America” with the highest per capita rate in the country.

Conflict is one of the main ingredients of drama and Youngstown is no stranger to conflict.

My grandfather earned a Zippo lighter for spending 30 years working at Youngstown Sheet and Tube before he died of a heart attack. I’m sure there are a lot of Zippo lighters floating around Youngstown. What I’ve never seen is a movie that captures that era.

So the time is ripe for a son of a son of a steelworker (or a daughter) to rise up and write some screenplays and make some documentaries on the area. Watch Gran Tornio (about Michigan in transition) and Country (about the farm crisis here in Iowa in the 80s) and start adding notes into your idea bank.

That’s what regional screenwriting is all about and there is still some magic to tap into down by Yellow Creek…there in Youngstown.

Clarett’s a WordPress blogger whose account from prison is called The Mind of Maurice Clarett (though it’s been a few months since his last post).  Reece, I hope you write your own story and that it has a happy ending.

Scott W. Smith

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Since I agree that creativity is simply connecting influences (not my phrase) today’s post is a good example of that. A few days ago I wrote about writer/director John Hughes and yesterday I wrote about Youngstown, Ohio. In doing that research I stumbled upon a connection between the two—Home Alone.

That little $15 million film that went on to make over $500 million world wide was written by John Hughes and directed by Christopher Columbus. Youngstown? That’s where Columbus spent much of his childhood and graduated from high school. (Technically, the northern suburb of Champion, Ohio where he attended John F. Kennedy High School.) His father was a coal miner.

Columbus headed to NYU to attend film school. (If you look at  a map you see if you head due east on Interstate 80 from Northeast Ohio and drive for 6 hours it will take you right into Manhattan.) While still a student at NYU Columbus sold his first script, which filmbug.com says was called Jocks, and was “a semi-autobiographical comedy about a Catholic schoolboy who struggles with his religion and his inability to succeed on the high school football team.”  After graduating from NYU he sold the script Reckless, “based on his experiences as a factory worker in Ohio. The film was directed by James Foley and starred Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah.”

But what really put Columbus on the map was working with Spielberg directly for three years as he developed his writing style and that resulted in his writing Gremlins (1984) and The Goonies (1985). Columbus directed Home Alone in ’90 and two more John Hughes films before directing the first two Harry Potter films.

In a 2003 DGA article it was pointed out about Columbus:

“If there is a common theme to his films, it would be variations on familial relationships. Home Alone is about a boy who loses his family and must find the inner strength to survive alone. Mrs. Doubtfire is about a man who loses his family through divorce and the only way he can reenter their world is by doing the outrageous, dressing up as the family housekeeper. Only the Lonely, which Columbus also wrote, is about a man who needs to extricate himself from his mother’s domineering presence in order to marry the woman he loves. And, of course, there’s Harry Potter, the tale of a boy living a miserable existence with his aunt and uncle who finds refuge with an extended loving ‘family’ at Hogwarts, a school for wizards.”

Columbus clarified the common theme in most of his films:

“It’s always about the search for a family or the redefining of who your family is. I guess it’s the fact that sometimes you play on your biggest fear. My biggest fear in my life would be to lose my family. So I’ve always been drawn to that theme. I mean, it’s odd. I never really talked or thought about it much, but if you look at the films I’ve done, particularly the films I’m really most happy with, and even the films that weren’t that successful, I think there is a thematic link. Most of them are about someone potentially losing their family.”
Christopher Columbus
DGA Magazine January 2003

Columbus is part of a small tribe of filmmakers whose films have made more than $1 billion at the box office. Not bad for a guy from Youngstown who used to work in a factory.

Scott W. Smith

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“Them smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay.”
Bruce Springsteen

I don’t know if it’s common for kids growing up in Poland, Ohio to dream about living aboard a yacht someday, but that’s the short life story of Mary Wells.

When I was a kid I first learned about Poland, Ohio and I wasn’t thrilled by it. It was located on my birth certificate as the place where my father was born. I knew nothing about the town, or even the country of Poland, I just knew there were lots of Pollack jokes and I wanted no part of that.

My dad left Poland, Ohio soon after he graduated from Spingfield-Township High School and went to Ohio State Univesity, which after a stint in the Air Force prepared him for a career in advertising in Orlando and Tampa.

Looking back my father had a 30+ year run in advertising and later in life for his labor he had a lovely condo in St. Pete Beach that looked over Boca Ciega Bay & the Gulf of Mexico. After he died I visited Poland, Ohio for the first time to see where he had come from. I walked around the remains of the Youngtown Sheet & Tube at Struthers and imagined what it would have been like for my grandfather to work a lifetime in a steel mill. (I must have listened to Bruce Springsteen’s song “Youngstown” a hundred times while driving around because that’s where Yellow Creek referred to in the song is located.) My father had come a long way.

But it pales when compared to Mary Wells’ journey. Born and raised in Poland, Ohio she fled to New York at 17 to study acting and where she ended up as a copywriter in the era of Mad Men.

She worked her way up from copywriter to CEO of Wells Rich Green (WRG).  In 1969 she was already inducted into the copywriters Hall of Fame. She was the driving force behind helping change the image of New York with the “I Love New York” campaign. And at one time she was the highest paid woman in advertising and sold her company in 1990 for $160. Million.  And that’s just the quick overview. You can read her story in her book A Big Life (in Advertising).

Now she has homes in New York and the West Indies as well as the little boat she likes to spend time on as she travels the world.

One of my favorite quotes by Wells; “Of course, I’m a legend. But it’s not because of any great gift I have. It’s because I’m a risk taker.”

But where did she get her creative start? She began acting in plays at The Youngstown Playhouse at the age of 5. (America’s oldest ongoing community theater.) She was only three years older than my father and I’ll always wonder if their paths crossed somewhere like the Poland Library or if she ever saw The Charles Smith Band perform.

But she’s one more example of a creative that rose up from flyover country to accomplish much.

And I also wonder when the Mary Wells story will end up on the big screen. I’m not the first one to envision Michelle Pfeiffer playing Mary Wells. I hope the movie gets made someday and I hope the opening shot is in Poland, Ohio.

Wells’ yacht is featured in Architectural Digest December ’09.

As a side note, Youngtown is where the Warner brothers (Jack & Sam)  of Warner Bros. Studios fame spent much of their childhood. And it’s where they began their own journey in the film business when they screened a copy of The Great Train Robbery.

Related post: Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl from Ohio

Scott W. Smith

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“Kids are smart enough to know that most teenage movies are just exploiting them. They’ll respond to a film about teenagers as people. [My] movies are about the beauty of just growing up. I think teenage girls are especially ready for this kind of movie, after being grossed out by all the sex and violence in most teenage movies. People forget that when you’re 16, you’re probably more serious than you’ll ever be again. You think seriously about the big questions.
John Hughes (talking to Roger Ebert on the set of The Breakfast Club)

For the past couple days I’ve followed the thread of John Hughes working in advertising before his screenwriting career took off. But another aspect of John Hughes that made his work special was he was Midwestern  to the core. He was born in Lansing, Michigan in 1950, moved to the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, IL as a teenager, and graduated from Glenbrook North High School in 1968. He did attend college in Arizona but didn’t graduate and moved back to Chicago where he began working in advertising.

Here’s the thing that many people don’t realize–he never left Chicago. Here’s what Hughes once told Roger Ebert:

“I’m going to do all my movies here in Chicago. The Tribune referred to me as a ‘former Chicagoan.’ As if, to do anything, I had to leave Chicago. I never left. I worked until I was 29 at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, and then I quit to do this. This is a working city, where people go to their jobs and raise their kids and live their lives. In Hollywood, I’d be hanging around with a lot of people who don’t have to pay when they go to the movies.”

I don’t think all of his 30+ films are set in Chicago but certainly his most memorable films have a Chicago emphasis; Mr. Mom, The Breakfast Club, Home Alone, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Christmas Vacation and if I recall correctly Sixteen Candles, She’s Having a Baby, and Pretty in Pink. And several more I’m sure.

“Refusing to move to Los Angeles, he once told me why he preferred to bring his young acting discoveries to Chicago to film: ‘I like to check them into a motel far away from their friends, keep them out of trouble, and have them focus on the work.'”
Roger Ebert
John Hughes: In Memory

For whatever reason Hughes only directed from 1984-1991. Though he continued to write screenplays over the years he in part retreated to a farm outside Chicago. (And actually just a two hours from the Iowa-Illinois border.)  I don’t know if he just was seeking a simple life or  just burned out from producing more work in a decade than most people do in a lifetime. Hughes wasn’t big on being interviewed so we may never know. Which, of course, adds to his intrigue.

Which makes the Robert Nolan article a nugget of gold. Nolan speculates on where Hughes got the idea for Planes, Trains & Automobiles:

John had an 11AM presentation in New York on a bleak winter Wednesday. He flew out of Chicago at 7AM, planning to return to Chicago on the 5 PM plane. But high winter winds were buffeting La Guardia and one after another, flights were canceled including John’s so he was forced to spend the night at a hotel nearby. The next morning, he stood by for a flight to Chicago, but many of these were being canceled as well because a big snowstorm was now raging in Chicago. When John finally did get out, his plane had to be diverted to Des Moines. But as they approached Des Moines, that airport became snowed in as well and the flight ended up in Denver. Not being able to get back to Chicago right away, John stayed on the plane and took it on to Phoenix. “Well, Phoenix is warmer”, he explained.

I talked to him a lot while he was stranded because John was tired and frustrated and needed to explain why he wasn’t in the office. Without luggage and running out of money, he complained that all he wanted was “A clean shirt! A clean shirt!” It took until the following Monday before he could get back to Chicago.

The other day, someone on TV said that Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was simply a rehash of Vacation and the material came from the same story. Not true. You can’t make up an odyssey like that.”

And lastly I found this little tribute to John Hughes on You Tube that is bound to bring back a few memories. If you’re looking for an example of a writer from outside L.A., who wrote stories that took place outside L.A., and stayed outside L.A., and found great success—then John Hughes is your man.

Scott W. Smith

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Using advertising as a stepping stone to screenwriting has been going on for decades. Basically all writers need time to develop their craft, pay the bills, and meet people.  The five years that John Hughes spent in advertising hit all those goals. And according to Robert Nolan who hired him at Leo Burnett, Hughes didn’t slack off on the advertising work at hand and he even picked up a few presentation skills that would help him in dealing with studio executives once he began working in movies.

“John never looked down his nose at the job. He took on every assignment with gusto and an off-kilter sense of humor. He was tireless and prolific — a committed workaholic. Every time he had a success on one project, he’d take on two more. When he finished those two, he’d go for four more. He was a whirlwind, banging away on his typewriter from morning till night. I think it was a discipline that never left him.

…Years later, when he was a successful screenwriter, he told me that the presentation skills he learned at Burnett helped him in presenting to the studio executives. He always remembered two things: first, to tell them what the idea was in one sentence before going into the details; second, to make some self-deprecating remark or a joke about the studio executive’s tie in order to break the ice and make everyone relax.”
Robert Nolan
The Early Ferris Bueller: Remembering John Hughes in Advertising


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