Archive for March, 2012

“You never know what’s going to be great and lasting. Everyone talks about being a writer, but sitting down and actually doing it is a much harder proposition. It’s like telling a filmmaker to get your hands on whatever you can. Don’t be a snob and say, you know, put yourself in debt for $20,000 for your student thesis film. If you can, get your hands on video or shoot Polaroids for that matter, put something together quickly to make it look like it’s a movie. It’s whatever you have to do to practice. It’s like anything, it’s very much a craftsmanship kind of art: You get better at it the more you do it. I’ve heard people give advice, like hearing Oliver Stone say that he writes everyday, even if he throws it away, because the practice of doing it is valuable—getting in that rhythm of doing it. They are not unwise words, really.”
Writer/ Director Neil LaBute  (In the Company of Men, Nurse Betty)
Best of Creative Screenwritng
Interviewed by Marty Nabhan & David F. Goldsmith

Scott W. Smith

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“When I write a script, I am telling a story that comes from my heart.”
Matthew Weiner, 9-time Emmy winning writer/producer (The Sopranos, Mad Men)

“He had a home,
The love of a girl,
But men get lost sometimes,
As years unfurl”
New York Minute
Lyrics by Don Henley, Danny Korthchmar, Jai L. Winding

I’m on a steady Mad Men diet. No, I didn’t see the season premiere of the Emmy-winning AMC TV program earlier this week. Not being a regular TV watcher it takes me a little time to commit to watching a show. But once I’m in, I’m all in. This week alone I’ve watched 9 episodes. (All which aired originally in 2007.)

It’s really more of a workout—literally. At the gym I set either a stationary bike or an elliptical machine for 47 minutes. (The length of an episode.) And I’ve even switched machines and watched shows back to back. So if you had a sedate winter give that Mad Men diet and workout a try. (Results vary.)

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”— but it sure can make for good drama. It worked for Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman and it works for Matthew Weiner and his writing team for Mad Men. In fact, the subtitle of Man Men could borrow words from Thoreau; “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Mad Men is everything that television usually isn’t; intelligent, philosophical, contemplative, and even spiritual. (Along with a good deal of smoking, drinking, and philandering.) And its use of subtext and visual storytelling* exceeds what you’ll find in the typical Hollywood feature film.

So I thought I’d find a little inspiration today for you from the Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

“Writers were idolized in my home. My parents had a big poster picture of Ernest Hemingway on a wall in a hallway in our house. I thought I was going to be a poet and that I would find some other profession, teaching or something, to support me. After I graduated from film school at the University of Southern California, it was about 10 years before I got a paying job in the industry, but I never gave myself a time limit. I wrote the pilot episode for Mad Men in 1999 at night while I already had a job, and finally got it produced in 2006.”
Matthew Weiner
A Conversation with Matthew Weiner by Bob Fisher 

Don’t gloss over that 10 year deal. It was 10 years after Weiner earned his MFA from USC that he got “a paying job in the industry.” He also did his undergraduate work at Wesleyan University where he was in “a Great Books program with philosophy, literature and history mixed together.” Smart cookie, with educated and affluent parents, but it still took him 10 years to get a paying job in the industry. Say he’s 24 when he gets his Master’s degree, that puts him at 34 before his career started to take off.

I don’t know what he did in that ten-year period, but I bet he was cranking out pages. (He did have some scripts optioned for free.)

“I’ve learned that tenacity is a common part of the personalities of successful writers whom I have met. Now, maybe because I have had some success, I can say that the struggling  for the 10 years or so before I got a paying  job, made me a better writer.”
Matthew Weiner

Looking for a word today to put on a 3X5 card to place on the wall behind your computer? Try tenacity. Meaning persistent, relentless—like a dog on a bone.

P.S. From the quirky connection category. Weiner is four years younger than me an attended the all-boys prep school Harvard in Los Angeles (Now the co-ed Harvard-Westlake School). When I was in film school I worked for Yary Photography taking pictures of sports groups throughout Southern California. I did several shoots at the Harvard School when I was 21/22-years-old. Weiner would have been a 17/18-year-old student meaning if he played sports our paths could have crossed for a fleeting moment.

And for what it’s worth, writer-director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air) is also an alumni of the Harvard-Westlake School where the tuition for this school year is $30,000.

P.P.S. Care for a Midwest angle on Mad Men? Jon Hamm, who plays creative director Don Draper was born in St. Louis, Missouri and graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Missouri. Same school Brad Pitt attended. Ironically, neither of the future stars and Sexist Men Alive were theater majors at the Columbia, MO college. And January Jones (who plays Don’s wife Betty) was born and raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (about 10 miles from the Iowa border).

* Visual storytelling Mad Men example: In the episode Long Weekend, the number #2 man at the advertising agency Sterling-Cooper calls a secretary into his office (who is having an affair with) and just before she closes the door to his office she decides to leave it ajar about a foot. Nothing said, but so much implied. As the scene plays on it turns out she has seen Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), and  sympathizes with the Shirley MacLaine character and wonders if she herself is just being used.

Related posts:

Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
“Unstoppable” Wesleyan University
Screenwriting Quote #32 (Mad Men)
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) John Logan’s (Hugo, Rango) 10 year struggle as a writer.

Scott W. Smith

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“I guess what I like in my movies is where you see a character change by maybe two degrees as opposed to the traditional movie change of ninety degrees. I guess that always feels false to me in movies because that doesn’t truly happen. Around me, at least in the life I live, I guess I don’t see people change ninety or a hundred degrees. I see them change in very small increments. I think it’s just a monitor I might have on myself as a writer to not make any false scenes.”
Oscar-nominated writer/director/producer Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood)
Best of Creative Screenwriting Vol. 1 (1994—2000)
Interviewed by Kristine McKenna & David Konow

Do you have a favorite movie (or scene) where a character changed incrementally (for better or worse)? Or a movie where the character change seemed too grand?

P.S. One thing that I find common with message films is the main character doesn’t just change two degrees, or 90-100 degrees, but 180 degrees. Films in general deal with short time spans and movies that feature characters who change 180 degrees usually comes across as trite.

Scott W. Smith

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Scott W. Smith: What’s A Tale of Delight about?

Edd Blott: A Tale of Delight follows Michael, an illustrator who’s living with post-traumatic stress disorder after seeing his wife tragically killed. It takes place during the holiday season a year later and explores how he is coping with grief while in the middle of what’s considered the most joyous time of the year. He’s longing to celebrate with his family, but he knows that he must first make himself vulnerable and share the pain he’s feeling with others if he has any hope of healing.

SWS: Where did you find your cast?

EB: Craigslist mostly. I was surprised at how much really good talent there is on Craigslist. I had the casting notice up on various channels, but Craigslist easily had the best and, actually, I think in the end everyone I casted submitted through there. I got over 200 responses in the first 24 hours. It was crazy.

SWS: What’s your goal with the film?

EB: Like I said, it really started out as a means of working through all the chaos in me. Throughout the development process, though, how that looked had changed. The core is still the same, because of the sheer number of people NOT talking about it, it’s now a project that wants to take the audience and for 90 minutes make them feel, really feel, like they are living with PTSD. It’s a project that wants to create a voice for those who feel unable to communicate what their lives are like. Shake people up, you know. Get them to see what is being turned away from. The fact is, mental illness still carries a very heavy stigma that forces feelings of shame and loneliness. I want to attack that and make people feel okay to talk about it. I want people to watch this and afterwards be empathetic to the hurting and, ultimately, now know how to more effectively love them.

SWS: A lot of people are more familiar with PTSD because of the soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. Has that influenced you wanting to make this film?

EB: Definitely, but I don’t think in the way people would expect. When I was diagnosed with PTSD, I was really surprised. Clearly, if you looked at my life, I had PTSD, but it was something I kind of associated with veterans and nobody else. I felt weak that I had this label because of an experience I felt was, by comparison, trivial. I do believe this film will be incredibly helpful for veterans, because the core of the issue (feeling like you’re being “raped” by your mind) is still the same, but because the tragedy in the film isn’t war-related, I think there will be a greater acceptance from the people who have PTSD that didn’t come from a combat-related incident (job loss, divorce, rape, bankruptcy, car accident, et cetera). We also don’t list PTSD by name in the movie, which I think also allows room for other mental illnesses to fit into it. Although not named, there are other characters who have other illnesses, as well.

SWS: Any distribution plans?

EB: Although we’ll be submitting the film to various festivals, that’s not our main channel. We’re at a really exciting time in filmmaking because how readily available the technology has become. So our plan is to self-distribute A Tale of Delight thanks to the support from some excellent companies who share our vision to make a social issue film.However, our primary goal is for the hurting to find comfort and we don’t want money to get in the way of that experience. That’s why we’re actually giving the movie away, digitally and in its entirety, for free. We want it to be a gift for anyone who sees it as an effective way to address these themes.

SWS: You’re on indiegogo trying to raise $25,000. What’s that money for?

EB: Although the movie will be free, it’s certainly not free to make. We want the quality of this film to be excellent. The $25,000 covers the budget for production, post-production, and all distribution and marketing costs. That doesn’t include equipment costs as we already own our gear, but everything else is included in that. We’re talking the food for the cast and crew, production insurance, labor fees, duplication, online hosting, and anything and everything else. Something that people don’t talk about when they mention Ed Burns or any other mumblecore filmmaker is that the budget listed on these projects is usually only the production costs. Ed Burns’ film Newlyweds actually cost upwards of $120,000 when all was said and done.

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I took this picture of Edd Blott in NYC on a production we worked on together.

One of the enjoyable things about writing this blog is being able to look at films and filmmakers of the past who have achieved great success. Of course, the great hope is that it will help the filmmakers of the future—or even the present. This week I’ll be posting two interviews I did with first time feature filmmakers who happen to be long time readers of this blog.

A few days ago Scott Myers at Go Into The Story had a sobering post titled The Business of Screenwriting where he relayed some numbers about the odds of a screenwriter selling a screenplay being in the 5,000 to 1 range.

“So yes, the odds are against you. Really against you. Way the hell against you.”
Scott Myers 

And those odds are are just for selling your screenplay. It says nothing of the odds of that script actually getting made. Or if it got made, what the odds are of it being any good and/or finding an audience.

But here’s the good news, there are people writing scripts and getting their feature films made. And they’re doing it without having gone to film school (one stat I’ve heard is only 4% of film school grads ever make a feature). And in the cases of Edd Blott and Cindy Gustafson they’re doing it living outside of New York or Los Angeles.

I’ll start today with a Q&A with Edd who lives in Portland, Oregon, and by the end of the week post the interview I did with Cindy who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Scott W. Smith: How long have you been reading the Screenwriting from Iowa blog and is there anything in general or specifically that has helped you in your screenwriting journey?

Edd Blott: I’ve known you, personally, somewhere in the vicinity of 8 years now. I remember three impressions from our first meeting together in Greenville. The first was your collection of incredible stories. The second was your depth of knowledge and foresight. The third was how much you wanted to see people thrive. That last one, especially, stuck out to me. At that time, few people were willing to take on a mentor-like role for fear of it just being a form of career suicide. You refused to believe that and because of your leadership, I became a better storyteller. You were willing to share your knowledge and experience to this kid long before it became the hot thing to do.

Fast forward a couple years later, I remember clearly when you first mentioned the idea of Screenwriting from Iowa. I totally geeked out. Finally, there’s one place where now anyone can benefits from seeing these elements merge into what I think is one of the most unique blogs on screenwriting that is out there today. I read the blog every day and feel like I am always either learning something new or finding encouragement to keep fighting to get my story told. You even were gracious enough to take a look at an early draft of my script and give me the honest critiques that I needed to hear to make it what it is now. Anything that comes from “A Tale of Delight” only happens because of how much I am indebted to you and your blog.

SWS: So before we get to your film A Tale of Delight first tell us how you ended up in Portland.

EB: I grew up in Spokane, which is about 6 hours northeast of Portland, but for roughly a decade I lived in the midwest in both Minneapolis and Chicago. One of the main reasons we relocated to Portland was the creativity out here. We really feel like what’s happening is kind of a modern day mirror image of what happened in San Francisco in the ‘70’s.

SWS: What’s going on in Portland film-wise?

EB: Well with Leverage, Grimm, and Portlandia all filming here, the television industry has definitely boomed. In film, Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes both live here. But what I find most exciting is the growing grassroots movement. There’s really an incredibly strong community of new filmmakers who want to help each other make well executed “personal films.” It’s beautiful to watch. It’s less of the “eat or be eaten” competition you find in Hollywood and more about seeing each other to succeed. It’s cliché, but it’s like a family. 

SWS: What filmmakers have been an inspiration to you?

EB:It depends on the project I’m working on, but there’s a small group that I go back to pretty regularly. The dead ones are Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Charlie Chaplin, Billy Wilder, and Jean Renoir. I actually tell people The Lost Weekend and Grand Illusion are the two films that made me want to be a filmmaker. As for those who are still with us, I’d say Francis Ford Coppola, some of Lars von Trier, and more recently Steve McQueen.
SWS: Where did the idea for your first feature, A Tale of Delight, come from?
EB: It’s inspired by my real-life battle with PTSD. In 2009, I saw somebody die pretty horrifically and was thoroughly jacked up by it. I was invaded, haunted, by the reoccurring images. I became dependent on alcohol. I started to cut myself. I mean, I live with scars all over my body now. I even planned out how I was going to commit suicide. Thank God it never happened because my wife called up a psychiatric emergency service. It was after that very dark season that my wife, Amy, reminded me that I was a storyteller. She suggested that I put those skills to work and try to tackle what was going on inside my head.
Tomorrow we’ll continue this Q&A with Edd and look at some more details about his film. Edd first made this film as a short and has begun production on this indie feature as he continues to look for source funding via his A Tale of Delight site at indiegogo.

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“If that’s the future, you can have it.”
George Valentin in The Artist  

I did see The Hunger Games today and not having read the books the movie came across as a mix of SurvivorShakespeare, and a soap opera—with a dash of  LOST, American Idol, and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Knowing that it was a trilogy did make it a little predictable, but it was fun to watch an interesting cast that includes Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland and Lenny Kravitz along with Winter Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence. The one thing the movie definitely did do was hit the bullseye intended targeted audience of the millions who have read the books. At least from a box office perspective.

An interesting stat following the popularity of the books with young people is the rise of archery among teenagers. An LA Times article titled Interest in archery shoots up with Hunger Game mania states that, “Youth participation in the National Field Archery Association’s World cup tournament in February in Las Vegas shot up 40 percent the year before.” And that USA Archery’s website, Twitter and Facebook accounts have seem growth as high as 263% in the past two years. 

Sure there have been movies in the past that have featured archery, but how many center around young girls and archery? Notice any similarities between the movie poster for The Hunger Games and Pixar’s upcoming film Brave?

 If you guessed that both feature a young girl and a bow and arrow, you’d be correct. (Is it too late to change the poster of John Carter?) Is The Hunger Games and Brave another example of Hollywood movie cloning? Is it also just a coincidence that there are two upcoming movies featuring Snow White with well established stars (Charlize Theron/Julia Roberts) as the evil Queen? (And featuring more young girls in danger in the woods. Gotta believe either Snow White and the Huntsman and/or Mirror, Mirror features archery in some way.)

Related post: 

Movie Cloning (Part 1)

Movie Cloning (Part 2) 

Scott W. Smith

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“Remember the old days, when movies were glorious, magical and mute? Neither do I. But the passing of the silent era from memory into myth is what ‘The Artist,’ Michel Hazanavicius’s dazzling cinematic objet d’art, is all about.”
A.O. Scott
New York Times article The Artist (2011) 

Yesterday I went to see The Artist for the third time in a movie theater. There have only been a few films in my life that have resonated with me enough to see the film three times in the theater. The last film I saw three times in a theater was Seabiscuit back in the summer of ’03.

I love everything about The Artist— Michael Hazanavicus’s writing and direction, the acting, the cinematography, the editing, the music, the sets, the dog, the costumes, etc., etc. All things which I appreciated more and more on repeated viewings. Heck, I just love the era of the 20s & 30s. And I was pleased when The Artist was awarded five Oscars including Best Motion Picture of the Year.

But as they touch on in The Artist— it’s out with the old in with the new.

When I left the theater yesterday I saw a line forming for the midnight showing of The Hunger Games. No, it wasn’t just a line, it looked more like some kind of protest mixed with a Justin Bieber concert. There was a line of teenage girls and tents. Tents—as in camping. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen tents outside a movie theater before. Granted it looked like it might rain little, and who wants to wait six hours in the rain? And my guess is that scene was repeated in theaters across the United States last night.

It will be showing this weekend in a staggering 10,000 theaters. According to The Washington Post, The Hunger Games set the record for advanced ticket sales of a non-sequel film. The midnight showing sold out 1,400 theaters and made $20 million just last night/this morning. I’m going to go way out on a limb and say that it’s going to be the box-office champ this weekend and pull in more than $100 million.

I don’t know the cultural phenomenon behind The Hunger Games other than the books have a diehard following. But I look forward to seeing the film because it  stars Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) and was directed by Gary Ross. (Ross, if you recall, directed Seabiscuit.) He also credited as screenwriter along with Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins (who wrote the book that the movie is based on). Ross has been quoted as saying of his work on The Hunger Games, “I’m as proud of this as anything I’ve ever done in my life.”

So by the end of the weekend it’ll probably be The Artist 3—The Hunger Games 1.

P.S. Just realized that both The Artist and Seabiscuit both deal with the same time period in and around The Great Depression and address issues of loss, obsolescence and redemption. The past was rough, but judging from the previews of The Hunger Games, the future looks worse. (Are there any movies where the future looks positive?)

Related posts:

Writing “The Artist” (Part 1)

Writing “The Artist” (Part 2)

Writing “The Artist” (Part 3)

Seabiscuit Revisted in 2008

It Takes Guts to Be a Screenwriter (Gary Ross)

Writing “Seabiscuit”

Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)

Related Links: Interesting article by Anne Thompson comparing why The Hunger Games killed it at the box office and why John Carter didn’t.

Scott W. Smith

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Stephen Moramarco has what he calls, “my own instant* Screenplay formula— a way to create a structure for a feature film that you could make yourself.” The good news is it’s totally free—and it even comes with an asterisk; “*Results may vary.”

Here’s Step Six:

“The main character must CHANGE. A screenplay is a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. If nothing happens to the hero, then what’s the point? We are watching this movie because it is a defining moment in this character’s life that will forever affects them. A simple way to do this is have the character start out one way (say ‘greedy’) and end up the opposite (‘a philanthropist’). That is the story of A Christmas Carol, in a nutshell.”
Stephen Moramarco

You can read all seven steps in his article Create a Great Movie in 7 Simple Steps.

Related post: Making a $5,000 Feature (Moramarco’s take on low-budget filmmaking)

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s amazing what M&Ms can do for morale.
Steve Moramarco

Actor, filmmaker and UCLA film school grad Steve Moramarco (@moremarkable) wrote an article last year in Indie Wire titled How to Make Your First Feature Film for $5,000which just happened to be how much his first feature film The Great Intervention cost to shot and edited. He has nine suggestions and that are similar yet different from what I called The 10 Ten Film Commandments of Edward Burns is a post last year.  But #1 on Moramarco’s list is about the script:

“From the moment you start writing the script, be realistic…Keep your scenes and location simple. Really simple. As in, scenes with no more than three or four people that take place in a location that you can access for free. Do not  think you can pay for a location. You can’t afford it.” 
Steve Moramarco

The best recent example of this is Buried—one actor on-screen in one location. (Sure they spent a boatload of money making that film, but Chris Sparling’s original intention was to write a script he could make for $5,000.) So check out the rest of Moramarco’s list and here’s a Film Courage interview with Moramarco expanding on his $5,000 feature film list.

H/T to filmmaker Edd Blott for linking that interview on Facebook and opening my world to Moramarco and Film Courage.

Related posts; Edward Burns’ “Newlyweds (Part 2) 

Filmmaking from a Coffin (“Buried”)

Screenwriting Quote of the Day #124 (Chris Sparling)

Scott W. Smith

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This one is for the quitters out there…or at least the ones thinking about quitting their screenwriting journey. The following quote is from a writer who last year had a script of his land on the 2011 Black List (The Imitation Game) before it sold for a reported 7-figure deal, and then he was attached to write the script for Devil in the White City set to star Leonardo DiCaprio.

[Writing partner Ben Epstein and I] were living in New York and had just written a spec script that didn’t sell…our fifth or sixth. I felt so dejected and thought that there is no way I’m going to be a professional writer. I said, you know what, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I called my manager and told him I was going to do something else with my life. I can’t keep handling this. I can’t keep going through this rejection.”
Graham Moore (@MrGrahamMoore)
Spec Sale Spotlight article by Zack Gutin
Script magazine

A few things to add to the mix. Moore graduated from Columbia University (religious history) and working with friend (and NYU film student) Ben Epstein he began writing screenplays. They wrote five or six and one was good enough to land them a manager (Tom Drumm at The Safran Company) and almost resulted in a sale.

Moore moved to LA where Drumm lined up some re-writing assignments and he started writing scripts on his own. In 2010 his novel The Sherlockian became a NY Times best seller, and his mom also just happened to spend over two years in the White House as Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, which provided Moore the opportunity to meet Hollywood insiders on trips to the White House.

Moore is originally from Chicago which is where Devil in the White City is set. A story surrounding a doctor who is believed to have killed as many as 200 people during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.

“My high school was 50 yards away from where the Chicago World’s Fair was held, and I played soccer on a field near where Holmes murdered about 200 people. It was a truly horrible crime, but it’s a very Chicago story. Though I moved to LA, I think of myself as fundamentally Mid-Western, and in a weird way, this is a dark and twisted tribute to my hometown.”
Graham Moore
Collider article by Dave Trumbore 

Yet, another screenwriter from Chicago. (William Goldman, David Mamet, Diablo Cody, John Logan, etc. etc.)

So don’t forget to read “the rest of the story” when you hear about a first time writer making a 7-figure first script sale. But more importantly the lesson here is — if you want to be a writer, keep writing through the rejection.

February 2015 update: Graham Moore won an Oscar for his The Imitation Game screenplay.

Related Post: Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Scott W. Smith

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