Archive for October, 2010

“When I was writing Finding Forrester, I was writing it as a hobby.”
Screenwriter Mike Rich

“I knew (Finding Forrester) was a special story. I had confidence that it was. I still couldn’t get anybody to look at it. So I entered it in a competition.”
Mike Rich

The phrase “hobby screenwriter” pops up from time to time often with a derogatory tone. Much like people talk about the guys down the street with their little garage band. But the truth is— you gotta start somewhere. Before screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester, Secretariat) was paid to write screenplays he started writing screenplays as a hobby.

Rich was born in 1959 so he was almost 40 when his script for Finding Forrester was awarded a Nicholl Fellowship in 1998. So the big question is—what was he doing before that? Rich was a news director and DJ in Spokane and Portland (sometimes working the night-shift).

“A radio anchor by trade, he started writing screenplays in his late 30s as a creative outlet. Every day after work and before his children returned from school, he would sneak in two hours in front of the computer. After a few practice scripts, Rich wrote Finding Forester, a story about the relationship between a fatherless teen and a reclusive author. The screenplay won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship award and Rich’s career was launched. Soon after, he was hired to write The Rookie for Disney, which grossed $75 million and further advanced his career. He’s been busy ever since.”
Christianity Today article by Drew Dyck

But what about that gap between completing writing Finding Forrester and winning the Nicholl Fellowship? (A place where many writers find themselves.)

“Rich tried all means to get his script out into the world: contacts, query letters and contests. Studios and production companies passed, which left the contests as his only hope. Though he didn’t make the cut in the Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting competition, winning the Academy’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowship more than made up for it.”
Yahoo! Movies

Any questions why Rich has found success writing inspirational underdog stories? Do you think there are perhaps a few parallels between Rich’s life and the character in The Rookie played by Dennis Quaid? (Rich’s second produced script about a late-blooming baseball pitcher in the major leagues.)

And now that he’s completed a decade long run throughout his 40s (in a business where 40 is considered old) his career doesn’t appear to be slowing down. A few years ago he was asked about his writing schedule.

“I get up in the morning at about 6:30 a.m. Read the newspaper and do the morning thing for an hour or so. And then I write for four hours or so. Take a lunch break. Go to the (fitness) club, maybe, just to get a break. Then I’ll write for another couple of hours. And then that’s usually it. Six hours is about my ceiling, because after six hours, you may think it’s good but … So, then you call it a day. And do it again the next day. I do it Monday through Friday and I take the weekends off.”
Mike Rich
Absolute Write interview by Jennifer Dirks

Writers are great at writing excuses. But let’s review all the excuses Rich had to not write and break in;
1) Full time job
2) Wife and kids
3) Lived outside L.A. (For the record, he still does)
4) Didn’t try hand at screenwriting until his 30s
5) Could only sneak in two hours a day writing
6) Wrote a few screenplays without success
7) Wrote Finding Forrester, but couldn’t get it optioned
8) Decided to go the contest route
9) Didn’t win contests
10) Sent script to the Nicholl Fellowship with several thousand other people

But there he is today with a screenwriting hobby turned career, and a nice stack of hit films in the last ten years. An example of the good ole’ patience, practice, perseverance school of screenwriting.

P.S. Mike Rich also did uncredited writing on the 2004 Disney film Miracle. Here’s a 2 1/2 minute video I made earlier this year surrounding the events of that team and movie.

Related  post: Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl from Ohio

Scott W. Smith

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If you’re looking for a poster child for a screenwriter outside of L.A. who has been able to have a Hollywood career — Mike Rich definitely qualifies. Born in Enterprise, Oregon, he graduated from Oregon State University, and he now lives in Portland, Oregon.

He was awarded a Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting in 1998 for his script that in 2000 became a film starring Sean Connery, Finding Forrester. He followed that up with The Rookie, Radio,  The Nativity Story, and most recently Secretariat. (And uncredited work on both Miracle and Invincible.)

“A great story isn’t so much about the story as it is the character. What attracts me to a story is the characters involved. With Secretariat what makes the story work is the character. If you don’t have good characters, it doesn’t matter how strong your story is, it’ll sink. For me, it’s always been about finding that character that I could really sink my teeth into.”
Screenwriter Mike Rich
Tri-City Herald interview by Gary Wolcott

So if you want to launch a career from outside L.A.—being awarded a Nicholl Fellowship is a good start. All you have to do is write a script that is better than the other 5,ooo or 6,000 scripts that the Fellowship receives each year and then get someone like Sean Connery interested in the script.

Scott W. Smith

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Two months ago the official blog of TomCruise.com had a post called Guide for Aspiring Screenwriters Part 1: Story Matters Most When Writing a Screenplay! and I was pleased that one of the two screenwriting blogs that was mentioned was Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places.

Now a post called 60 Best Blogs for Aspiring Screenwriters has listed Screenwriting from Iowa #7 saying, “Scott W. Smith philosophically peers into screenwriting and the creative process that goes into the craft.” Thanks for the shout out.

The saying goes that a number without a context is meaningless, but when I look at some of the blogs listed on there I am honored to be in such good company. The list  appears to have some kind of connection to the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University. But whoever came up with the list really did their homework.

Scott Myers’ blog Go Into The Story is well deserving in the top slot as is Big Fish screenwriter John August’s blog at #2. Ken Levine who wrote on the TV show Mash has his blog listed at #5 so I have no problem at all coming in at #7. (And just for the record, as far as I can tell, none of the other blogs have won an Emmy.)

As I wrap up the third year of this blog (and the second year of daily posts) it’s been a thrill to get some recognition. And it will also give me some added inspiration to get the content into book form.

On Sunday, I’ll be giving an introduction to the 1939 John Ford classic Stagecoach as part of the 100th celebration of the Oster-Regent Theater here in Cedar Falls. I look forward to that because it’s kind of encapsulates what this blog is all about. Not only does the film star John Wayne who was born here in Iowa (Winterset) but the script was written by Dudley Nichols* who was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio. How many could find either of those places without Mapquest or Google Maps?

* I mentioned Dudley Nichols back in October of ’08 in the post Screenwriting from Michigan as he was one of the first, if not the first, to graduate from the University of Michigan and have a screenwriting career in Hollywood. According to IMDB he was also the first artist to turn down the Oscar. (For his screenplay that became the 1935 film The Informer.)

Scott W. Smith

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“(Screenwriting  is) all pretty much sitting alone in a room staring at a screen. That solitude is interesting to me.”
Screenwriter David Koepp (Spider-Man, Jurassic Park)

“Solitude is the school of genius.”
Edward Gibbon (Writer of the classic book, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)

Playing off the quote I heard and wrote about yesterday —“Solitude is creativity’s best friend.”—I thought I’d explore that a bit from the perspective of screenwriting. Of course, there are many layers and definitions of solitude than is fitting to cover here, so this is only meant as a quick overview.

In a happy accident yesterday I stumbled upon Anthony Storr’s book Solitude. I picked it up at a used bookstore years ago but never read it and had it in my car to donate to the library. So I read a chunk of it last night and found it an interesting read on the subject.

“The majority of poets, novelist, composers, and, to a lesser extent, of painters and sculptors, are bound to spend a great deal of time alone.”
Anthony Storr

In Karl Iglesias’ book, The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, he quotes several screenwriters on the topic of working alone.

“Something like 20 percent of the general population is introverted, but I think most writers probably fall into that category. They feel very comfortable with solitude. They are probably better in one-on-ne situations rather than dealing with lots of people. I know that when I’m in a room full of people, I tend to fall back as an observer.”
Robin Swiscord (co-writer, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)

“As a screenwriter, you need to be comfortable with that solitude for long periods of time, unless you work in television where’s it’s a more social environment.”
Amy Holden Jones (Mystic Pizza)

“You need to create solitude so that you can hear the voices, and you need a willingness to to live in the world of the story for long periods of time, forcing yourself into the world of the story for long periods of time, forcing yourself into the world of the characters so that you can believe they exist. Many spouses understandably complain that we’re not living in the present.”
Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society)

Solitude in the sense they are talking about is working by oneself.  But it can also be defined as withdrawing from normal activities for a time as Thoreau did on Walden Pond and wrote about in Walden.

“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
Henry David Thoreau

There are many positive aspects this kind of solitude. A spirit of contemplation and reflection.

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up. Left the house and went off to a solitary place, where He prayed.”
Mark 1:35

“Solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely.”
Hara Estroff Marano
Psychology Today article “What is Solitude?”

“Solitude is painful when one is young, but delightful when one is more mature.”
Albert Einstein

But the other side of solitude has a darker perspective. The former monk and reformer Martin Luther was not fond of solitude for that is when he believed Satan attacked him the most. It could be a place that the Eagles sang about, “Your prison is walking through this world all alone.” We’re talking Howard Hughes territory. And it’s clear if you read many bios or watch many movies on well-known artists, solitude was not always their friend—or even their choice.

“Creative talent of a major kind is not widely bestowed. Those who possess it are often regarded with awe because of their gifts, They also tend to be thought of as peculiar; odd human beings who do not share the pains and pleasures of the average person. Does this difference from the average imply abnormality in the sense of psychopathology? More particularly, is the predilection of the creative person for solitude evidence of some inability to make close relationships?

It is not difficult to point to examples of men and women of genius whose interpersonal relationships have been stormy, and whose personalities have been grossly disturbed by mental illness, alcoholism, or drug abuse. Because of this, it is easy to assume that creative talent, mental instability, and a deficient capacity for making satisfying personal relationships are closely linked.”
Anthony Storr

That is they were forced into a kind of solitude because they either could not stand to be with other people or other people could not stand to be with them. That often freed them to hyper focus on their art. And often to focus on things that led to their demise. Of course, not every creative genius falls into that category—but the list is pretty extensive of those that do.

So I guess like many things, solitude for any of us can be a benefit or a hindrance in life.

Scott W. Smith

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We live in an age where it’s common to regularly check emails and text messages and where everywhere we turn there seems to be a computer or TV screen staring at us. This morning on NPR I heard an interview with Scott Simon and The Judds, Naomi and Wynonna, that touched on a common theme I’ve found since starting this blog.

“Solitude is creativity’s best friend, and solitude is refreshment for our souls. I don’t think we spend enough time in reflection and introspection. We don’t know who we are as individuals in this culture anymore.””
Naomi Judd

I don’t know if anyone has done a scientific study of solitude and creativity  but there seems to be a common connection with people like Walt Disney growing up in small towns and on farms that leads to healthy imaginations. Of course, these days even life on the farm can be pretty high-tech so solitude is something you have to fight for no matter where you live these days.

Before The Judds made 14 number one songs and sold in the neighborhood of 20 million albums, life was a little more down to earth.

“In the beginning, I started playing just out of the fact that we didn’t have TV or telephone. We did have radio. I do remember listening to the Opry and NPR with my dad when I was small, but I just started playing out of boredom. You know, at that age, it’s such a social age for a young girl, that all I had were my animals and my guitar. I think it was a natural progression of Mom hearing my voice and humming along.”
Wynonna Judd

All that boredom without TV or telephone didn’t seem to hurt Wynonna’s sister either. Ashely Judd is coming up on the twentieth year of her career as an actress.

Scott W. Smith

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“If you’re just some dude or dude-ette from Oklahoma with a dream of seeing your name in lights, know that you’re one of millions.”
Internet post by leinbl00

“I graduated with an MFA from UCLA. The odds I heard were that only 1 in 5 of us would have any appreciable career. I graduated 5 years ago. I’m the most successful (so far) in my class, with one script bought and made, one webseries delivered to the web and one further indie feature that I co-produced now reaching the festival circuit — but all my success only puts me on the lowest tier of the Hollywood game. I’m still struggling… I’m still broke.”
Internet post by Riter

This morning I came across an exchange on Reddit (via the blog Complications Ensue) and I’m not sure of the original source, but I found it interesting. This was the original question posted somewhere online:

Q.) I was just wondering what it’s like being a struggling writer in LA. What’s the day to day life like? How do you make ends meet, do you wait tables at night and write during the day? I’m not asking specifically for people who have sold scripts, but anyone who is really struggling to find work in the business, or has already.

Here is the abridged “realistic but not quite cynical” answer from a longer thread by  someone who goes by kleinbl00;

“I’ve optioned two scripts. I’ve made enough money at it to be ineligible for the Nicholl. I’ve seen some of my work show up on the big screen. I count among my friends some exceedingly pro screenwriters, a few struggling directors, a couple producers, and storyboard artists, makeup artists, art directors and concept designers whose work you have seen dozens of times. I’m hip-pocketed at one of the Big 5 and have, in the past, had offers of representation by managers you see prominently on the Black List.

I make ends meet by mixing sound.

If you’re a screenwriter with a hope and a dream out there in Middle America, STAY THERE. The screenwriting-as-hobby sphere of influence (lookin’ at you, Austin Film Festival) will have you believe that “if you write it, they will come.” What they don’t tell you is that USC, UCLA, Cal Arts, Loyola, AFI, Claremont and half a dozen smaller programs are turning out hundreds of grads a year, who already have the connections you need to make, who have already learned the lessons you need to learn, and are already going to the parties you wish you could attend.”

What’s it like being a struggling writer in LA? It’s like being one goose in an unwanted sea of geese. When there’s just a few of you you’re magnificent, marvelous birds… but when there’s as many of you as there are in LA, it’s like being a public health menace and knowing it.

My intent, when I made the move down to LA, was to get into the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. And I got a 1530 on my GREs, and I’d written 5 screenplays, and I had a letter of recommendation from one of the biggest screenwriters in modern Hollywood, and they told me to pound sand. I was good’n’pissed about that for a while.But I came down and I started mixing and I landed on a pretty big show. And the guy who changed the coffee and made sure we had enough snacks in the breakroom and did whatever scut work the producers told him to do? MFA, Peter Stark Producer’s Program, USC.*

And with that cue Albert Hammond‘s great and timeless song It Never Rains in Southern California

Bottom line—Don’t Waste Your Life, and don’t bitch about how hard it is to sell a screenplay until you’ve invested 10,000 hours in writing, and know that every once in a while someone in the fly-over states actually separates themselves from the rest of the geese.

* Don’t bet against the USC person who spent $100,000 on his MFA and is currently working 18 hours days on a set making minimum wage. He or she is not unemployed, they are educated, and they’re making plenty of contacts—and I’m guessing he/she is hungry and has passion. (And with overtime still brings home enough a month to more than cover their part of the rent of the small apartment they share with other PAs in Koreatown.)

Scott W. Smith

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“You have to over perform. It’s the secret that almost nobody’s willing to do.”
Stephen J. Cannell

Earlier this month, after Emmy-winning writer-producer Stephen J Cannell died I wrote a post (Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic) on how prolific a writer he was in writing over 400 TV episodes. But yesterday I stumbled upon an older article in Script magazine that cements Cannell’s work ethic. Here are some excerpts from a Ray Morton article and interview he did with Cannell in ’08 when Cannell was the recipient of the Final Draft Inc. Hall of Fame Award.

“Working for his father during the day Cannell would come home and write for five hours every night. He did this routine for five and a half years.”
Ray Morton

(Keep in mind that this was before a single word was produced. Five and a half years of writing five hours every night.)

“I was like a machine. I swear I had a stack of material you could sit on.”
Stephen J. Cannell

“I would spend nine days getting ready for a 45-minute (pitch) meeting. My rule was that when I did pitch (I would) have six or seven fully worked-out three act plays where I could tell you every scene. Then I would come up with four or five ‘springboards.’ A springboard was a set-up and a solution—’Here’s what happens and here’s how it ends’— but I didn’t have the second act. And then I would have four or five ‘what ifs.’ A ‘what if’ is ‘What if this happened?’ I wouldn’t know the ending—it was a jump ball. So I would have 15 to 20 ideas and I would go in—and I never missed.”
Stephen J. Cannell

Morton pointed out it was that drive that lead Cannell to not only write more than 450 episodes of television, but co-create over 40 television series and start his own production company that at one point employed 2,100 people. (That’s more than a lot of towns here in Iowa.) After some FCC changes in 1995 changed the way Cannell could do business in the TV world and he turned much of his attention to writing novels and his 16th novel was just released two days ago.

When Morton asked the multiple lifetime achievement award-winner for advice to aspiring writers this was Cannell’s response:

“You have to write everyday. It’s like lifting weights. It’s just the way it is—you get stronger the more you do it, and if you aren’t working, you aren’t getting stronger. I’m very disciplined about the way I go about (writing). You know, when you say, ‘He created 42 primetime television series—how’d he do that?’ Well, you’d be surprised at what you can do if you get up* and write for five hours a day everyday for 35 years.”

* Just for the record, Cannell began his days at 3:30 AM. One more writer to add to  the Writer’s Breakfast Club.

Scott W. Smith

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“Oh, I’ve stolen from the best… I mean I’m a shameless thief.”
Woody Allen

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”
Jim Jarmusch

No, I’m not going to write about writers and artists who create while drinking. But if you read a few bios of writers and artists you’ll realize that more than a few (for whatever reason) have a fondness/weakness for drugs and alcohol. But that’s another post for another day.

I want to address creative influence.

Yesterday, I did a photo shoot and was told by one friend that one of my shots looked like one of the Star Trek movie character posters and other friend said George Hurrell would be proud. Not knowing what either meant I did a quick Google search and discovered that they were both correct. See if you agree.

The photo I took of Josh McCabe is one the left and the other is of actor Eric Bana as the Star Trek character Nero. I don’t recall ever seeing the Nero photo before, but the  similarities are obvious. Black & white photo of white males, dead center  composition with eyes looking up, lit with edge lights to the left and right. (If I shaved Josh’s head and Photoshopped some tattoos from his arm to his face it would be called a dead rip off.)

Now photographer George Hurrell‘s influence I will admit to. When I moved to LA as a 21-year-old there was a place on Hollywood Blvd. that was lined with photos of old movie stars— Errol Flynn, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow and the like.  Lots of black and white shots from the 30s and 40s and I’ve always been drawn to that style. Hurrell was one of the best known photographers of movie stars in that era. Here’s one of his shots of Humphrey Bogart next to the photo I took. Again, there are similarities and I understand why the connection was made.

There’s nothing new under the sun. Isn’t Lady Gaga just an updated version of Madonna and Cher? And weren’t they updated versions of Carmen Miranda?

Well now she had a big hat, my it was high
Had bananas and mangos all piled to the sky
How she could balance it, I wouldn’t dare
But they don’t dance like Carmen nowhere
—Jimmy Buffett

From a screenwriting perspective, don’t be surprised (or offended) if someone reads your script and says, “It reminds me of….” Graphic designer Milton Glaser (most famous for his I Love New York design) says that all creativity is is just connecting influences. You have your influences when you create something and the viewer/reader of your work has their influences. Lines are being crossed and connected all the time.

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have both talked about boyhood TV shows and movies that influenced the concepts behind Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sometimes the connection is obvious and sometimes obscure. One of the screenplays kicking around my house is Body Heat written by Lawrence Kasden. The 1981 film has often been called a re-make of the 1944 Billy Wilder film Double Indemnity. You can find much online (here’s one) about the connection between the two, and I don’t know if Kasden ever saw Double Indemnity, but the script I have says “An original screenplay by Lawrence Kasden.”

Don’t analyze this stuff too much because it will stifle your creativity. Just keep creating, keep writing.

Scott W. Smith

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Within the next week I hope to finish a spec script which is the first script I’ll finish without having picked a title. I usually have a title when I start or find one toward the beginning of the process. So as my quest continues, I came across this quote;

“A screenwriter should be prepared to spend as much time as it takes to get the one-to-five words of the title exactly right. If there ever was a time to not quit, to keep searching, to not be satisfied, to keep your standards high, it’s in choosing your film title. A good title could get your script moved up from the bottom of the stack of to-read scripts to the top — and change your life.”
Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek)
Wordplay, Screenwriting Column 24

Scott W. Smith

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“You’ll be unstoppable if you become technical as well as creative.”
Producer/director/editor/cameraman/etc. Robert Rodriguez

Most of the people who have seen The Social Network are not even aware that it was shot digitally on the RED camera. Nor do they care. But back in 2003 when someone talked about shooting a feature film with an HD camera they were seen as somewhere between suspect and delusional. (This was four years before the RED camera would even be released.)

But way back in July 2003, Robert Rodriguez gave a talk at the Cary Grant Theater at Sony Pictures Studios on his experiences of shooting Once Upon a Time in Mexico with the Sony F900*—a HD camera that George Lucas had introduced to him;

“One of the benefits of being outside of Hollywood—one of the reasons I think like this (shooting digitally) has to do with the fact that I don’t live here. Because (in Texas) you’re so removed you get to examine (how films are made) and say, ‘That doesn’t really make sense for us out here. Let’s do what makes sense.’ And you find a whole other way of shooting.  And that’s one of the best things you can do for yourself even if you work here (LA). Try to get a birds-eye view of things and really question it and you’ll start coming up with different ways of doing things that work.”
Robert Rodriguez

Hat tip to Go Into The Story for posting the videos of Rodriguez’s talk.

Fast forward to 2010 and you can see that Rodriguez is still evolving technically. Click here to see the music video Like Romeo and Juliet that Rodriguez shot with two Canon 7D cameras.

*Note, to show how quickly the technology is changing…a Sony F900 (which if I recall correctly, cost new in the $100,00 range) today can be had for around $10,000—or about the same amount of a pimped out Canon 5D these days. (Sort of like the Canon 7D Rodriguez is holding in the above photo.)

Related post: The Outsider Advantage

Scott W. Smith

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