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Archive for October, 2010

Lord, that 61 Highway
It’s the longest road I know
61 Highway Blues
Fred McDowell

And he said, “Yes, I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61″
Bob Dylan
Highway 61

In light of Bob Dylan playing two miles from my house tomorrow night here in Cedar Falls, Iowa I thought I’d give a nod to the man from Minnesota who influenced a generation. (And, yes, I have a ticket for the concert.)

Dylan and Highway 61 both are deeper roots to what Screenwriting from Iowa is all about. (Yes, technically a stretch of Highway 61 runs though Iowa, but Dylan’s reference as well as this blog’s name is more metaphorical.)

Where does really talent come from? Everywhere. Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota which happens to be a stop on Highway 61 as it goes from New Orleans all the way north to Wyoming, Minnesota. (Contrary to the lyrics in 61 Highway Blues, Highway 61 goes nowhere near New York City.) Highway 61 has been called “The Blues Highway” because of the southern region from which blues music sprang up before it flowed into the world.

At the corner of Highway 61  and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi is where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange to become a master blues musician. Lots of talent has driven up and down Highway 61 including Muddy Waters, “the father of the blues,” who was born in the Mississippi Delta near Highway 61 between Clarksville and Vicksburg.

Muddy Waters not only influenced Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Elvis, but rock n’ roll, jazz, folk, R&B,  country and who knows what else. His 1950 song Rollin’ Stone is where the Rolling Stones took their name.  And of course, Waters & other bluesmen influenced Dylan. So that’s the Highway 61 connection.

Dylan spent most of his youth in the mining town of Hibbing in northern Minnesota. A group of close-knit Jewish people from Eastern Europe were drawn to opportunities in the area known as the Mesabi Iron Range. (See David Mamet’s connection to storytelling and Eastern European Jews.) The ore from the area once made the small town of Hibbing very wealthy. But by the time Dylan (then known as Robert /Bobby Zimmerman) was a teenager in the 1950s the mining town’s heyday was over. But it was fertile ground to listen to blues and country on the radio and learn to play the piano and guitar. Dylan graduated from Hibbing High School in 1959.

Zimmerman became Bob Dylan while playing the folk music circuit in the Minneapolis area known as Dinkytown by the University of Minnesota. Some have said the name change was a nod to Welch poet Dylan Thomas. (“Do not go gentle into that good night.”) That was 50 years ago. Just a few years before he would record the album Highway 61 Revisited, which the magazine The Rolling Stone listed as the #4 on its list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. And on the magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone (from the album Highway 61 Revisited) comes is at number one.

Not bad for a kid from Hibbing.

P.S. I’ve been listening to Dylan’s songs before screenwriter Diablo Cody was born. But I should point out that she was not only the inspiration behind me starting this blog in ’08 —Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)— but she has ties to the same artistic, literary, and musical turf that Dylan tread in Minneapolis.

Related Posts:
Highway 61 Meets A1A (Dylan & Buffett)
Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)

Scott W. Smith

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Once upon a time (1978) in a land far, far from Hollywood (Utah) a film festival popped up that eventually became what is considered today as the granddaddy of film festivals in the United States—the Sundance Film Festival. I imagine 30 years ago if you asked most people if they wanted to go to a film festival in Salt Lake City a common answer would have been, “Why?’.

Of course, having Robert Redford involved didn’t hurt visibility, nor did the decision in 1981 to move the festival to Park City, Utah. And since that is a ski resort town they also moved the festival from the summertime to the winter as a way to make the festival more glamorous to the Hollywood crowd. Those changes all worked. And the festival that was originally started to increase filmmaking in Utah and highlight regional independent filmmaking has become a two-week suburb of Los Angeles full of celebrities and paparazzi.

So where do you go these days to see small, independent, regional filmmakers? Well, honestly, if you’re not making a film try next door because somebody there is probably between writing a script and editing the film. Small film festivals are everywhere as cities now see it as a marketing advantage—a way to seem with it.

But I want to tell you about a little film festival that is located in one of my favorite areas in the country—The Fly Way Film Festival began in 2008 and is held in late October in Pepin & Stockholm, Wisconsin.  (It’s going on right now.) The two small villages on Lake Pepin (part of the Mississippi) while not large in number are a located in a beautiful area that has no shortage of artists. And begin located an hour and a half south-east of Minneapolis makes it not so remote.

This year 35 feature films and shorts will be show through this weekend. I met the director Rick Vaicius last month while sailing on Lake Pepin. One of the things I like most about the festival is they don’t charge an entry fee for filmmakers. I think that probably sets them a part from most (all?) film festivals right out of the gate. I don’t know if they’ll become the next Sundance (or even want to be), but I think it’s a festival that should be on your radar because what every filmmaker needs is a few cheerleaders in their corner.

And speaking of cheerleaders, Kelley Baker, The Angry Filmmaker, will also be speaking at the Fly Way Film Festival this year.

As a taste of this year selections… Ballhawks is a documentary by Mike Diedrich that is narrated by Bill Murray. The film will be show tomorrow (10/23/10) at the Fly Way Film Festival and Diedrich will be on hand at the showing. (For those of you in Texas, the film is also showing this week at the Austin Film Festival.) The film is about  a little known aspect of Chicago Cubs baseball that happens just outside Wrigley Field. Diedrich says it’s, “A story about hope, exuberance, shattered dreams and picking up the pieces to move on.”

Vimeo doesn’t play well with WordPress so click here to watch a trailer of Ballhawks.

Oh, and one for the trivia books. Pepin, Wisconsin happens to be the town that Laura Ingalls Wilder was born just outside of. (Before she wrote Little House on the Prairie, her first book was Little House in the Big Woods about the Pepin area.)

One more example of big things happening in small places. (Not to mention Bob Dylan playing here in Cedar Falls, Iowa on Sunday.)

Scott W. Smith

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“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
Andy Defresne in The Shawshank Redemption

In light of quoting Secretariat screenwriter Mike Rich this week (Screenwriting Quote #145Mike Rick & Hobby Screenwriting) it would be hard to look at the list of films he’s written and not see that there is a thread of hope and redemption in all of them.

“It’s very, very hard to get a movie made. Quadruple or quintuple that degree of difficulty when your movie is about endless grim horribleness. If there is no spiritual uplift at the end , the reader is going to heave the script into the fireplace and cackle as it burns. Why should the audience suffer along with the character only for it to have been in vain?…Let the reader end on a note of hope or redemption.”
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks
page 15

The themes of hope and/or redemption aren’t limited to Disney films or more overtly spiritual films. Here is a short list in a mix of genres and old and new films that I’d put in the category;

The Shawshank Redemption
Casablanca
On the Waterfront
Seabiscuit
Juno

The African Queen
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Toy Story

Jaws
Tender Mercies
Field of Dreams
Erin Brockovich
Rocky

Rain Man
The Natural
Tootsie
Saving Private Ryan
An Officer & a Gentleman
Jerry Maguire
Pieces of April

It’s an easy list to come up with because those are some of my favorite films. It’s also a list shows that themes of hope & redemption are often popular with audiences, the Academy and critics. Sure getting a film made is hard, but what are the odds that your film resonates with audiences, the Academy and critics?(There are reasons universal themes are called universal.)

And on one level every screenwriter hopes the script they are working on will be produced and find an audience and will redeem the time spent working on their craft. (Even the edgy, indie, non-mainstream screenwriter working on the most nihilistic script ever written shares the same desire.) May hope & redemption fill your writing career and your life.

Scott W. Smith

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“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
Solitude

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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