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Archive for March, 2010

Recently I came across a post called Selling Screenplays From Outside L.A.? by Hal Croasmun where at an event he says he asked the question, “Is it possible to create a screenwriting career from outside L.A.?” to 16 L.A. producers and two agents.  Croasmun writes;

Up until recently, the typical answer to the “selling from outside L.A.” question was “The odds are against you.”  But this year, there was a change.

QUESTION:  Can writers sell scripts from outside L.A.?

15 producers said YES.

1 producer and both agents said NO.

QUESTION:  Have you optioned or bought a script from outside L.A.?

8 producers said YES.

3 producers had already made movies with writers from outside the U.S.

It’s not a perfect score, but it means that it is possible for a writer to succeed from anywhere in the World.

Honestly, when I started the blog Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside L.A. just over two-year ago the title was a little tongue in cheek mixed with a little bravado. I picked the place that gets picked upon as representing the middle of nowhere. Iowa is the poster child for obscurity, yet a deeper look reveals that it has produced some amazing creative talent. And Iowa is just a springboard to show the writers who have come from all over the world and found success to one degree or another.

But it’s also given me a front row seat to watch the film industry slowly evolve into being more open to embracing writers from outside Los Angeles. Mix that with low-cost, high quality digital cameras and the proliferation of non-linear editing systems with self-distributed micro-films and film incentives popping up all over the world and this is one exciting time for screenwriters.

Croasmun on his Screenwriting U website has an excellent post called 15 Ways to Sell Screenplays Online which includes in a Twitter link to 87 Producers you can follow. I’m not going to say that this all started with Diablo Cody and her blog, but I think it’s safe to say to her Oscar success was a sign of a signficant change in an industry that doesn’t change quickly.

The secret Hollywood handshake has always been a great script. And now thanks to the Internet it is easier than ever to connect to agents and producers. Of course, writing a great script is just as hard as ever. Happy writing.

Scott W. Smith

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“I write in toilets, on planes, when I’m walking, when I stop the car. I make notes. If I am working at a studio, I work at the studio in the morning, then come home. I am really writing two days instead of one. After the studio, I have my second day [at home]. I write whenever I can.”
Richard Brooks
Oscar-winning screenwriter (Elmer Gantry)

The only thing that stopped Richard Brooks from writing was his death in 1992. Before that the writer/director originally from the slums of Philadelphia racked up four decades of credits on films such as In Cold Blood, Blackboard Jungle, The Professionals, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—all of which were nominated for Academy Awards.

As a side note, I am working on a script now that has some parallels to In Cold Blood (1967) and I just watched the film last year for the first time. From the story angle that Truman Capote wrote and for which the movie is based on, to the cinematography by Conrad Hall, to the performances on screen, In Cold Blood is a fine tuned movie. (Check out the film Capote, too. How many movies are made on the research done for a book & movie?)

In Cold Blood was based on events that occurred in a small town in Kansas back in 1959,  it is also a disturbing movie as it offers glimpse into the human heart.

In Cold Blood was also directed by Brooks giving you a deeper understanding of his talent. He directed a total of 24 films getting Oscar-nominated performances out of ten different actors including Paul Newman, Lee J. Cobb, and Elizabeth Taylor. I’m always interested in the events that paved the way for writers to break into Hollywood and Brooks did it the usual way—he wrote. He wrote a lot.

After studying journalism at Temple University, he struggled to land a job at a newspaper during the depression because they were letting reporters go, not hiring them. (Sound familiar?) He eventually landed in New York doing radio and started directing plays before heading to Hollywood.  But long before Brooks spent his final days in his house in Beverly Hills (which was paid for by his creative endeavors) he wrote stories and learned his craft before anyone paid him a dime.

“I’d written some short stories before, but none was published. Anyway, every day, another short story. Everything became grist for a short story. It began to drive me crazy . . . a different plotline every day. My ambition: write one story a week instead of a different story every day. In about eleven months I wrote over 250 stories.”
Richard Brooks
Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s/Patrick McGilliagan

So before he won an Academy Award, and before he adapted (with John Huston) the script for the classic Humphrey Bogart/Edward G. Robinson film Key Largo, he wrote—in case you missed it—250 short stories. Two, five, zero. Next time you hear a writer complain about not getting anyone to buy (or even read their script) ask them how many stories they’ve written.

And I should point out for good measure that Brooks, who served in World War II, is one more Marine in Hollywood folklore.

Big hat tip to Scott Myers at Go Into The Story for the extended passage on Brooks that he pulled from McGilliagan’s book.

Scott W. Smith


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Last week I was asked this question:

“I’m trying to write more with ‘looks,’ more action, and less dialogue. I find very little advice for how to write these looks into the narrative without ‘directing’ the scene. Also, screenwriting books frequently state that narrative sections rarely get read by readers early in the process. That they typically read through just the dialogue. Have you read/heard this too? Curious if you have any thoughts. Thanks!” —Cindy

The short answer is you want to tell a great story. That is what everyone is looking for. A story that people are willing to invest money, talent and two or three years of their life trying to get it made. You want to write something that frightens the horses. By some accounts 99 out of 100 scripts fail to stir the imagination.

To paraphrase that great line from Walk the Line, “If you only had one story to tell before you died, what story would you tell?”

Now Cindy’s question is about the nuts and bolts of what the script looks like and I have written a lot on that and will supply some links below. The main one is Screenwriting by Numbers. I’m not saying it’s the law, but it is what the majority of good scripts that made good movies look like. The scripts are tight with a lot of white.  Brief description, little dialogue and a lot of white on the page.  Sure there are exceptions to the rules, but I said majority—not all.

Perhaps the reason for that is movies tend to flow quickly from one scene to the next and screenwriters are trying to get reader to imagine the movie. If writers wanted write a pure literary experience then a short story or a novel would be a better choice. But speaking of the reader, let me pass on a quote that I think is an important aspect of screenwriting that is often overlooked.  It comes from screenwriter Pete Chiarelli who wrote The Proposal starring Sandra Bullock. Chiarelli spent ten years being a development creative executive before he turned screenwriter so he has a unique qualifications to tell you who your first audience really is from a studio perspective.

“I definitely have a thing from being an executive and reading so many scripts that I’m always afraid of kind of boring the reader. When you’re writing these screenplays for the studio system…the people reading it are overworked, they’re coming home with ten scripts in their bag—and it’s not so much the first ten pages, it’s about when they’re reading the script they have to put it down, go have a sip of coffee, come back, play Donkey Kong, come back…Or are they going to be sitting there flipping pages? I just think of me on a Sunday night—like those rare scripts where you just sit there and go wap!, wap!, wap! (sound of quick page turning)— that’s the sound that I want. So constantly keeping the story moving and keeping the pace up is something I that I always have in the back of my head. And there’s things that I learned in screenwriting class—things like ‘never write anything that’s never going to be on the screen,’ that it’s a cheat,  which I get, but the thing is your audience at the beginning is a studio executive—they don’t care about that. So if you have to be a little more obvious in your scene description that will help point them along that’s something you should do. Write for your audience, and your audience is a 24-year-old overworked creative executive.”
Pete Chiarelli
Interview with Jeff Goldsmith
Creative Screenwriting Podcast (Friday June 19, 2009)

Descriptive Writing—Part 1 (tip #22)
Descriptive Writing—Part 2 (tip #23)
Descriptive Writing—Part 3 (tip #24)
Descriptive Writing—Part 4 (tip #25)
Descriptive Writing—Part 5 (tip #26)


Scott W. Smith

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Photograph by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

“My bracket has Kansas winning the whole thing. Kansas is that big, fast, strong, deep, good, great, unbeatable.”
Gregg Dovel, CBSSports.com

President Obama was wrong. But he was not alone in picking the Kansas Jayhawks to win the NCAA National Championship in men’s basketball this year. In case you don’t follow such things, Kansas lost yesterday to that little known team from right here in Cedar Falls, Iowa—The University of Northern Iowa (UNI).

One sports writer said the upset victory, “could go down as the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history.” Of course, that’s debatable. What is less debateable is this is the biggest victory in UNI’s history. This was the first time they have ever beaten a top ranked team. To do it in the NCAA Tournament before a national TV audience is all the sweeter.

The above photo of UNI player Ali Farokhmanesh celebrating says it all. It’s one frame that if it were the end of a movie the critics would be rolling their eyes calling it cliché. But movie audiences enjoy a good underdog story time after time. Why do we love underdog stories?

What is it about an underdog story that makes us feel so good? Perhaps it’s as simple as we all feel like underdogs. We can relate. Heck, I have a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa which might as well be called Screenwriting for Underdogs. But then again that would be redundant, wouldn’t it? (Tell me Joe “I’ve been in fights most of my life” Eszterhas hasn’t felt like an underdog his entire career?)

So screw the critics and keep writing underdog stories because the truth is cinematic history is full of great stories of underdog characters and underdog stories. From Rocky, Indiana Jones, and Norma Rae Webster to Hans Solo, Oskar Schindler, and Erin Brockovich they’re all underdogs that are greatly admired.

More recently, The Blind Side (based on the life of Michael Orr) found an audience to the tune of $250 million so far and landed Sandra Bullock her first Oscar. People still want to see Michael Orr stories. And, of course, an underdog doesn’t have to be an athlete.

Both James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic are the #1 & #2 box office champs—and both underdog stories.

What are some of your favorite underdog characters or stories?

P.S. The University of Northern Iowa is where Kurt Warner played college football before he became one of the greatest underdog stories in contemporary sports history. I should also give a shout out to the University of Iowa’s wrestling team who last night won the 2010 NCAA Division 1 wrestling championship. No underdogs there—it’s the third straight year they’ve won the championship and 23rd in school history.

Related post: Orphan Characters (Tip #31)

Scott W. Smith

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“David took a stone from the bag and slung it… knocking the Philistine to the ground.”
Scene from the movie Hoosiers

Today the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) men’s basketball team from here in Cedar Falls, Iowa plays the #1 team in the country, Kansas. For many it’s just another game as part of March Madness. But if UNI wins today it would be the biggest win in the school’s history. Of course, the term David & Goliath is being thrown around.

The epic Biblical story of David & Goliath is mentioned just about every time there’s a battle between the little guy and the big guy. It could be a sporting event, a corporate clash, a movie, or any number of references that pit the little guy against the big guy. The term David & Goliath is mentioned so much that like “Catch-22″ many don’t even know the original reference.

We could go to the movies to get caught-up on our history. Did you know Orson Wells played David in the 1961 movie David & Goliath? Richard Gere played David in the 1985 movie King David. I’m not sure just how many movies feature David and Goliath but there are a few, including at least one musical.

And though this is a blog about screenwriting I think it’s worth a look at the original context of David & Goliath. After all “Screenwriting from Iowa” is all about the little guy. To any new reader; Iowa is just a metaphor for coming from a place far from Hollywood. But time and time again over the last two years I’ve shown that writers really do come from all kinds of unusual places.

What we mostly remember about the original biblical story is simply that David as a youngster slew a giant. We actually don’t know exactly how old David was or how tall Goliath was, but it’s enough to say that it was a mismatch. David was young and the giant was tall. On the day of the famous battle the only reason David was there was to take food to his older brothers who were in the fight. But when David sees and hears the trash talking Philistine warrior he decides to take him on.

Goliath is not impressed when David grabs five smooth stones and a slingshot, “Am I a dog that you come to me with sticks? Come to me and I will give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the fields.” (Nice dialogue.) Game on.

David says he comes in the name of the Lord and then plants a stone in Goliath’s forehead. Goliath falls on his face and David uses Goliath’s own sword to finish the job and cuts off the giant’s head. Game over. And David, who was just the food delivery guy a few minutes prior, is on his way to becoming the King of Israel.

No doubt a great story and it’s no surprise we’re still talking about it centuries later.

But let’s not over look a couple things. Yes, David came in the name of the Lord so maybe he wasn’t quite the underdog that we think. But there is one more detail about David that is always overlooked—He was prepared.

Prepared like a teenage Olympian who has trained a lifetime to win a gold metal. Prepared like screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher who wrote thousands of (unproduced) pages over a couple decades before he won an Oscar (adapted screenplay, Precious).

While David was off tending the sheep in some far away place that is the equivalent of Iowa in Israel, he had killed “both lion and bear.” We’re not talking about a video game. How many people do you know that have killed a lion and a bear? I imagine David passed 10,000 hours practicing sling shot techniques. He stepped into the situation with Goliath with confidence because he was prepared.

Bringing this home to screenwriting is this quote I’ve mentioned before;

“When it comes to screenwriting, it’s the writing. You don’t hear people who want to play professional tennis ask to be introduced to the head of Wimbledon. No, they’re out there hitting a thousand forehands and a thousand backhands.”
Screenwriter Scott Frank

Lastly, I’m not saying UNI will win today. But I am saying they could win today because they having been preparing for this for a long time. And just because I like odd facts, let me add that writer Robert Waller (The Bridges of Madison Country) played basketball at the University of Northern Iowa.

Update: This is why they call it March Madness…This afternoon UNI defeated the top-seeded team (Kansas) 69-67. Some have called it one of the biggest upsets in March Madness history. (It is the first time in the school’s history when they have beaten a top ranked team.) At Yahoo sports they even called Ali Farokhmanesh’s bold three-point shot toward the end of the game, “The shot that felled Goliath.”

Related post: Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)

First Screenplay, Oscar— Percious


Scott W. Smith

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On Screen Writing by Edward Dmytryk is not the most marked-up book on writing that I have, but it is one that I return to again and again. Dmytryk directed the Oscar-winning film Crossfire (1947) as well as the highly regarded films The Young Lions, Raintree County and The Caine Mutiny. In total he directed 56 films and later taught at the University of Texas at Austin and USC. I can’t think of an another filmmaker who has better combined professional and academic credentials than Dmytryk.

Need is undoubtedly the most common, the most useful, the most malleable, and the most easily understood and accepted basis for a story…In The African Queen two completely diverse personalities are forced to ride the length of a dangerous African river in a dilapidated boat—that is the situation. Their need is two-fold; first, to leave the territory, which is occupied by the enemy, and second, to blow up the German gunboat at the end of their journey. The conflict is also two-fold; first that of the diametrically opposed characters, and second, their battles with the perils of the journey, By the end of the film they have conquered the situation, fulfilled their needs, and resolved both their physical and personality conflicts.”
Edward Dmytryk
On Screen Writing
page 20

Just as I finished this post I learned that The African Queen (Commemorative Box Set) will be released for the first time on Blue-Ray March 23, 2010. The 1951 film directed by John Huston and starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart is a classic of classics, and an excellent film/script to study from a filmmaking and screenwriting perspective.

Scott W. Smith

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“I love the concept that your friends, your neighbors, the people you know best and trust most become your enemies, and that’s a pure, primal concept that digs deep into the soul and human psyche and human fear. I thought, what a great subject to explore.” 
Director Breck Eisner
(A quote not about a documentary on the Hollywood film industry, but the concept behind his film The Crazies)

Last night I went to see The Crazies, the first full-bore Hollywood feature that was shot & widely released as a part of the Iowa film incentives. (Yes, the ones that are fading away.) I’m not really into the zombie-like thing but was pleasantly surprised how good the film was and how enjoyable it was to watch. (72% on the T-meter over at Rotten Tomatoes and a healthy box-office.)

The cast led by Timothy Olyphant was super and the pacing of the movie was excellent. Screenwriters Scott Kosar and  Ray Wright set the George Romero remake in a small town in Iowa. The Midwest peacefulness was shattered from the start when the first crazy walks onto a little league baseball field with a shotgun. It was an effective way to set the tone early. Some stories need a little setting up, but like Jaws, The Crazies sprints out of the gate and never really stops until the end.

I didn’t know until after the film was over that former Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s son, Breck Eisner, directed the film. Turns out the director who is in his mid-thirties is a USC film school grad and spent 10 years directing big budget commercials as well as some TV programs and the film Sahara starring Matthew McConaughey. Even though he’s Michael Eisner’s son (which I’m sure has its advantages and disadvantages) he’s still been at it for 15 years as he develops his craft. (A favorite theme of mind.)

“The greatest moviegoing experience of all time is Raiders of the Lost Ark, maybe just after Star Wars. So there was an element in me who as a kid just loved those kinds of movies and was excited to make one. When it came to The Crazies, getting an opportunity to do a darker, more intimate, character-based, more personal movie was something I really jumped at and wanted to do. It’s much looser, much more intimate – it’s a completely different type of movie, for sure. It’s not about scope; I really got to dive into character and relationships and really spend time in those worlds.

But still, shooting horror is like shooting action. They’re very closely-related cousins. You’ve got an action sequence, it’s built up, you’ve got a number of shots to build up to the big climax, and then you quickly resolve it and hopefully do a couple of spins on the way. With horror it’s the same way – it’s all about the suspense, it’s all about the pieces and shots and angles and how you build up to the big climax and the resolution, so it’s a similar muscle that’s flexed.”
Breck Eisner
Cinematical interview with Todd Gilchrist

Scott W. Smith

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