Archive for July, 2011

William Froug on Theme

“Ask yourself a most important question before you begin: What is it about? I do not mean the plot, the arrangement of events, or eve the characters. I don’t mean who it’s about, but what’s it about. What are you saying in this story? What is your point of view? What is there about this story that engaged your heart and mind? What do you feel this story? Where is your source of energy coming from as opposed to the story’s source of energy? When you have answers to those  questions, you have your theme….The major theme is the heart and soul of your screenplay. Without a theme, your script will be hollow, empty. Study the themes of each movie you see, the minor themes as well as major theme.”
William Froug
Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade
Pages 74-77

Related post: Writing from Theme (Tip#20)

Scott W. Smith

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Speech, Speech?

In the post James L. Brooks on Chayefsky, Brooks is quoted as having great admiration for Chayefsky’s monologues in Network and Hospital.  This is what screenwriter and former USC professor Irwin R. Blacker had to say on the topic of speeches in book The Elements of Screenwriting (which was first published in 1986  shortly after his death).

There was no need for a speech against was in All Quiet on the Western Front. 

There was no need for a speech against vigilante justice in The Ox Bow Incident.

There was no need for a speech against money-making evangelicalism in Elmer Gantry.

Each film made its point without any characters declaiming on the subject.  The subject  of the film and the way the film is constructed should convey sufficient message.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? was diminished by its undramatic speeches about tolerance: no character in Death of a Salesman discussed the eroding quality of the American Dream gone sour. As Samuel Goldwyn is reputed to have said, ‘Messages are for Western Union.”

So even if Chayefsky and Shakespeare pulled off big speeches doesn’t mean that most writers should or can.

Scott W. Smith

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James L. Brooks on Chayefsky

I’ve never watched Network (1976) and Broadcast News (1987) back to back, but that would be an interesting experiment. James L. Brooks, writer/director of Broadcast News, has been open about his admiration of the Oscar-winning writer of Network. 

“I think Paddy Chayefsky should be in the argument for the greatest American writer. Just his versatility. That he was able to do comedy and drama. That he was able to look into the future—I don’t know anybody else that wrote two widely prescient pieces of work. When Hospital was done nobody knew we had a problem with health care, it never occurred to anybody. It was still guys making house calls. And he wrote Hospital—and he was the first one to see that—and Network was beyond belief in what it predicted…This is what was great about Chayefsky, to me you still haven’t written something unless there is a monologue in there… Just the attempt of going out there and writing a long speech and having it sustained is extraordinary. I think in Network there is a woman named Beatrice Straight, an actress, and she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, and basically her whole role was a monologue about what it was like to be married to William Holden.  He was the guy.
James L. Brooks
TV Legends interview  

Scott W. Smith

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Flash Over Substance

“What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing… he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.”
Aaron Altman (played by Albert Brooks)
Broadcast News
written by James L. Brooks

(Kickstarter update for 7/27/11) Thanks to Joe Shapiro for his kicking in yesterday at 5:41 AM yesterday to bring the three day total to $450. in the quest to see Screenwriting from Iowa…and other Unlikely Places become a book. If you’d like to help push that number over $500.–or to learn more details on the project—click here.)

Scott W. Smith

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Last week I watch the Criterion Collection DVD of Broadcast News that was written and directed by James L. Brooks. Despite the 1987 film being Brooks was nominated seven Oscars and not winning any, I think it is one of the finest films of the 80s. And almost 25 years after it was released, it is still a screenwriting and acting feast.

Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks have so wonderful moments in this film that it I just want to keep watching this film over and over. And Brooks is brilliant—and he has a long history to prove it: The Simpsons, Terms of Endearment, As Good As It Gets, Taxi, Mary Tyler Moore, Room 222. But there was a time when Brooks was just somebody starting out in the media business, in awe of the talents of others:

“I was at CBS News on a fluke. I replaced somebody who was on vacation. I worked as a copy boy, then became a news writer. This was at the end of the glory days there. You’re looking at somebody who actually saw Edward R. Murrow. He’d go get a drink at this bar, and I’d get a table and have coffee just so I could keep looking at him.”
James L. Brooks
 The Atlantic interview

And it was that fluke that helped serve as the foundation for Broadcast News. May we all be blessed at least once in our lives with a fluke of ours resulting in something one tenth as good as Broadcast News.

Scott W. Smith

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“Every book, ever editor, every teacher will tell you that the great key to success in authorship is originality….It is well to understand as early as possible in one’s writing life that there is just one contribution which every one of us can make: we can give into the common pool of experience some comprehension of the world as it looks to each of us. There is a sense in which everyone is unique. No one else was born of your parents, at just that time of just that country’s history: no one underwent just your experiences, reached just your conclusions, or faces the world with the exact set of ideas that you must have. If you can come to such friendly terms with yourself that you are able and willing to say precisely what you think of any given situation or character, if you can tell a story as it can appear only to you of all the people on earth, you will inevitably have a piece of work which is original.”
Dorothea Brand
Becoming a Writer
Pages 119-121 

Kickstarter update from Day One (July 25,2011): Well, the first few hours after my launch were a little rough–$00.00. (One of those moments when you stop and think, “If I delete this now, will anyone notice?) But Kyle Pukas and Daniel Yu stepped to the plate and the Kickstater really got started. Thank you Kyle and Daniel. If you’d like to help Screenwriting from Iowa..and Other Unlikely Places become a book then click here.

Scott W. Smith

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For those of you who’ve been wondering about Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places becoming a book —now’s your chance to help make that happen. This morning I launched my first Kickstarter campaign.  (For those of you interested in starting your own Kickstarter campaign, I’ll explain the process this week over at E-Filmmaking.com.)

After 3 1/2 years of writing this blog I’ve totaled over 300,000 words and have edited the best material down to a tight 65,000 word manuscript. But there are few steps that I need help on before this book can become a reality, and I have a short time to and raise the money through Kickstarter.

If you can join me a little further down the road of this jouney, that would be appeciated. It’s been a heck of a ride.

Visit Screenwriting from Iowa at Kickstarter to learn more about the book project.

Scott W. Smith

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On part 5 of a five days of posts on Jerry Seinfeld do you think I can find some connection to his success and the state of Iowa? Of course, I can. First Seinfeld points to his appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson as the event that changed his life. For decades Johnny Carson was where you went to be blessed before you moved up the comedian ranks. Just where do you think Johnny Carson was born? If you said, I-O-W-A, you would be correct.

Before the The King of Late Night! won eight Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he had his start in the world when he was born in Corning, Iowa.

Back in 1925, when he was born, Corning had a population of just under 2,000. According to Wikipedia, “he grew up in nearby towns of Avaca, Clarinda and Red Pak is southeast Iowa, before moving to Norfolf, Nebraska at age eight.” As a student at the University of Nebraska, Carson began performing magic tricks for money. After graduation he began his broadcasting career at WOW in Omaha.

So that’s a pretty good connection. The other one is a little more indirect. When I move to Cedar Falls, Iowa in 2003 from Orlando, Florida I was followed by an actor named Gary Kroeger. I was familar with him because some of my production friends in Orlando had worked with him around that time when he hosted at game show called Beat the Clock that was taped at Universal Studios-Florida. After that show was canceled Kroeger and his wife decided to return to Cedar Falls where he grew up and where he had taken a job as a creative director at an advertising company.

What’s this have to do with Jerry Seinfeld? Well after he graduated from high school he attended college at Northwestern University and started and improve group with his girlfriend—who just happend be to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Yep, the same Julia Louis-Dryfus who would go on to play Elaine, Jerry sometime girlfriend on the long running TV sitcom Seinfeld. Both Kroeger and Louis-Dreyfus went from college to joining the cast of Saturday Night Live on 1981. One of the staff writers in that show was a struggling writer named Larry David. Of course, David would go on to be the co-creator with Jerry Seinfeld of Seinfeld.

Kroger worked next to David writing skits. In fact, after Seinfeld ended its run and David  created Curb Your Enthusiasm, he cast Kroeger to play the Weatherman in this clip. (Language warning.)

Indie film lover of the film The Big Picture starring Kevin Bacon may remember Kroeger who had role in the film along with Teri Hatcher and Jennifer Jason Leigh. And he was also one of the screenwriters of the 2001 film The Chameleon which starred Seymour Cassel. So while Kroeger may not be a household name he’s a produced screenwriter, who was once on the cast of Saturday Night Live, and has performed alongside some top well-known talent. He made it to the big leagues which is further than the tens of thousands who try ever year to one degree or another.

And who Knows, what Seinfeld would have been like if Kroeger and Julia Louis-Dryfus hadn’t of honed their talents in college and she never was cast as Elaine. And who knows what would have become of Jerry Seinfeld if there was no Iowa-born Johnny Carson around to give him his big break. Sure, someone of Seinfeld’s talent would have broken down other doors and big rich and famous one way or another, but won’t you give Iowa a small assist in the Jerry Seinfeld you know and love?

BTW— I worked with Kroeger on a commercial when I first came to town and we’ve remained friends ever since. I sent him a message Saturday saying I wanted to interview him for Screenwriting from Iowa and he’s agreed to do it. So if you have a question for him about Saturday Night Live, his career in New York and L.A., or working with Larry David and/or Julia Louis-Dreyfus add them to the comments section and I’ll see if we can get him to answer them.

Scott W. Smith

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“There is a great premium on originality. And being funny is not just enough for the taste of audiences today. They really want to get comedy and a person. A uniqueness. And no one can write that for you so you have to create that…Everyone’s funny in a different way.”
Jerry Seinfeld

So let’s review the bidding on entertainer extraordinaire Jerry Seinfeld:

1) At 8-years old he makes a friend laugh hard enough to spit his milk out and thinks, “I would like to do this professionally.”
2) Graduates from college with honors in 1976 and does his first open mic night.
3) Works on his craft by writing jokes and performing every night for free— for years.
4) In 1981, after some success in stand-up he does his first appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

His fame and popularity would continue to rise as a stand-up comedian throughout the 80s, but his off-the-chart success would come in the creation in 1989, along with Larry David , of the sitcom Seinfeld. Not much needs to be said of the top rated show which ran for ten years and is the number one rated syndicated television show of all time (yes, ahead of I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and All in the Family).

The show is his Mount Everest. It would be hard to imagine a scenario in which he could top that kind of iconic success. Success that paid him enough to buy Billy Joel’s Long Island estate in 2000 for $32 million to go along with his Porsche collection (and homes in Manhattan, California and Colorardo) . Here we are ten years removed from when Seinfeld stopped taping and he made $70 million dollars last year. In 2011, Forbes listed him at number 40 on its list of The World’s Most Powerful Celebrities. Which is amusing in light of the quote in yesterday’s post where he said he did not care about money, only that he cared about being funny.

Few will ever reach Seinfeld’s measure of success, but those that do will more than likely follow a time test pattern. He was passionate about developing his craft and worked hard and writing original material. It’s safe to say that he got in his 10,000 hours between 1976 and 1989 when he launched his TV program.

Link to The Tonight Show interview in 1990 at the launch of  the Seinfeld TV program.

Kickstarter launch in 2 days, July 25.

Scott W. Smith

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“I did well because I didn’t care if I was successful. I just wanted to be a comedian. I didn’t care about the money, I didn’t care about my career. I just wanted to be up on stage telling jokes.
Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry Seinfeld graduated from college in 1976 and that year did his first open-mic night at Catch a Rising Star in New York City. He had stretches where he said he did stand-up every night for 18 months without missing a night—and without getting paid. He was simply honing his craft. In 1981, after five years of various degrees of success he made his debut on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. 

He spent years honing 20 minutes of material into a tight comedy set. For his first appearance on Carson he would have to edit that down to a tight 5 minute routine. And he then honed that five minutes by performing it 200 times before audiences before his shot with Johnny Carson.

In an interview many years before the his Seinfeld Tv program (and before his marriage) this is what Jerry Seinfeld told Larry Wilde about what makes his comedy original:

“I like to look at something that seems so trivial in life—like I do this whole thing about cotton balls. And how women need thousands and yet men don’t seem to need any. And, ‘what are they?’ And I’ll get more into that than I could into my girlfriend or some subject like that that people would find attractive as a subject. That somehow doesn’t attract me. I get interested in the type of faucets that they use at the airport and the sinks. Wondering how much milk you have in your refrigerator. And the little interrogation you go through if you live with someone. Who had the had the last? What time did you get up? How much milk was there? Those little things in life—that’s why I like to get in there—I’m more interested in the mortar than the bricks.”

Kickstarter launch in 3 days—Monday, July 25.

Scott W. Smith

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