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Archive for March, 2012

It’s West Virginia day here at Screenwriting from Iowa. Below are three of the Google micro documentaries that I field produced and shot in Charleston and Martinsburg, WV on behalf of Magnet Media in New York City. In total, I did 21 of these last year in six states and they were a blast to work on. Travel, met interesting people, and tell their stories—what’s there not to like.

If you happen to be in Charleston, WV today (March 19, 2012) check out the free event at the Clay Center—Walker Theater to learn more about getting your business online. (Stats show 63% of small businesses in the U.S. aren’t online.) Otherwise, check out the West Virginia Get Your Business online website.

P.S. From the lips of a West Viginian—The 1971 John Denver hit song Take Me Home, Country Roads (written with Taffy Nivert and Bill Danoff) was about Virginia, but the opening line “Almost heaven, West Virgina” worked better because of the four syllables in West Virginia. (Others say that it was originally supposed to be Massachusetts, which also has four-syllables and is Danoff”s home state.)  But West Virginia it is, and since 1972 the song has played at every home football game at the West Virginia University. Though some have wanted to change the state motto to “Almost Heaven” it is actually “Mountaineers are always free”—and the state song is West Virginia My Home, The West Virginia Hills, This is My West Virginia.

Related posts:
From West Virginia to Hollywood
Steve Martin’s Bluegrass Roots
Postcard #8 (West Virginia Fall Colors)
Quote from the Road #1 (Charleston)
Jennifer Garner’s Old W.V. Job

Scott W. Smith

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A couple of weeks ago I was in Des Moines on a project and came across a book by Hugh MacLeod (@gapingavoid) called Ignore everybody; And 39 Other Keys to Creativity. And I landed on this little sentence of his that I’ve mulled over ever since:

“Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether.”
Hugh MacLeod

It reminds me of Tom Peters‘ advice to “Go where the hotspots aren’t.” Back in 2003–after living my entire life in either Orlando, Miami or Los Angeles—I moved to Cedar Falls, Iowa. My friends who thought I was crazy started to change their tune when the state and area started showing up in lists such as “top ten places to start a business,” “best small towns to live in,” and  “healthiest places to live.” And to top it off there is a good creative heartbeat in Iowa.

MacLeod was once a “struggling young copywriter living in a YMCA” when he started to doodle on the back of business cards. Those cards turned into the blog/website gapingavoid.com. (He first went online in 2001 and according to a 2005 article he was getting 1 million views a month.)  Now he’s a successful author, speaker, artist, actor with several companies under his belt.

Of course, you don’t have to physically move to Iowa (or Marfa, Texas) to avoid crowds, but be creative and find room in your little red wagon to carry that thought around for a while —”Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether.”

Related post: “A Sea of Sameness”

Scott W. Smith

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“I [write] everyday: bankers’ hours—10 a.m. to 4:00—5:00 p.m. It’s a job…On a script that goes well, I’d say I spend three months outlining and two months writing. That’s ideal.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Shindler’s List)
Script Magazine
Interview with Ray Morton

P.S. And for what it’s worth, Zaillian writes on a legal pad sitting at his back patio. He also wrote Moneyball, Searching for Bobby Fischer Awakenings The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

P.P.S. You may not be able to write bankers’ hours, nor able to dedicate 6 or 7 hours to writing, but it is beneficial to think of screenwriting as a job and to do it everyday—even if you just chip away at it an hour a day.

Scott W. Smith

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“A co-worker of mine was raving about him, and I had never met him or seen his work, and I said, ‘What’s the big deal about Scott Duncan?’”
Natalie Jowett
Producer—ESPN/Maggie Vision

Here are three more videos to give you a glimpse into Scott Duncan and his creative world. The first video is an overview of a shoot he did on the impact Nelson Mandela had in South Africa, the second is a little closer to home that Scott shot in Parkersburg, Iowa, about the legacy of high school football coach Ed Thomas. ( Ed Thomas Family Foundation.) And the third video is a mini documentary that Scott was the DP on and features Bono and the U2 gang joined by the Soweto Gospel Choir.

P.S. Scott Duncan does have a blog. And I want to give a shout out to the web design and e-commerce group Spinutech who did the website for The Ed Thomas Foundation (and who I work closely with via River Run Productions here in Cedar Falls).

Scott W. Smith

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One of the things that makes Scott Duncan‘s work as a director of photography stand out is his use of contrasts. Shooting wide (sometimes fisheye wide) and shooting extremely tight, sometimes he slows images down (the Phantom camera can shoot 1,000 FPS at 1080) and sometimes he speeds up the images with time-lapse photography, sometimes his images are highly saturated and sometimes they’re in black in white, sometimes the shot is static and sometimes he adds a slight slider move.  And he doesn’t just  limit himself to a contrast in images, but in content as well.

The first two videos below are part of fast-paced glitzy promotional videos Scott shot for The Apprentice, and the third video is a thought-provoking and meditative piece he shot for ESPN about a man who was falsely imprisoned. Two totally different genres.

Related post: Screenwriting & Contrasts (Tip #18)

Scott W. Smith

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“If Indiana Jones were a cameraman his name would be Scott Duncan.”
Moe Shore
Abel Cine blog post by Moe Shore 

“I have several cameraman that I’m close to—that I respect and love, but there’s Scott [Duncan]—and then there’s everyone great, and then there’s everyone else.”
Natalie Jowett
Producer-ESPN/Maggie Vision

There are some talented shooters who have made a bigger name for themselves by being on the forefront of embracing social media. These days some of those creative people probably make more money teaching workshops and getting paid equipment endorsements than actual shooting assignments.

Then there’s Scott Duncan. A true director/cameraman/photographer rock star. And though he’s kind of mix of Lance Armstrong and Bob Marley, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of him or his companies Scott Duncan Films/Other Films. But he’s a good source of inspiration of what one can do with a camera, so I’ll spend two or three days showing some of his work.

His resume is deep. He’s shot for ESPN, Survivor, The Apprentice, BMW, Ford, IZOD, and five different Olympics. His work has taken him around the world working with not only high-profile clients, but with a diverse group of high-profile people.

Once you see his work, you won’t be surprised that he’s also won eight Emmy Awards—but you may be surprised that he’s based in Iowa City, Iowa. (With a presence in L.A.)

And though we only live an hour a part, I’ve actually never met him. I first heard his name in 2004 when I was on a shoot in Colorado Springs and met an ABC producer who when she found I was from Iowa said, “Oh, you must know Scott Duncan.” I had never heard his name before that. I then became aware of his work and have even had two cameraman friends in Orlando (Mike Murray & Mike McAleenan) who’ve worked with Scott on various Survivor gigs around the world.

Enjoy. (The best seven minutes you’ll probably have today.)

Related post: 10 Cinematography TIps (Roger Deakins) 

Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday I noticed that WordPress added a nice little feature that shows me global stats to this blog Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. They show me where views to this blog come from. The big three are no surprise; United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. But there’s also Malaysia, Serbia, Bangladesh, Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg, Qatar, Montenego, Trinidad and Tobago.

Actually, in the past four years there have been views from a total of more than 60 countries. Some of the countries I couldn’t tell you where they are, and others I’ve never even heard of. Gives new meaning to screenwriting in unlikely places. So let me give a shout out to people in all of those countries including Mauritus, Estoria, and Azerbajan. (And even though there 1.3 billion people in China, for some reason I’ve yet to get a single view from there.)

It all reminds me of that opening line from ABC’s Wide World of Sports that I watched growing up as a kid–”Spanning the Globe…” which ran between 1961 and 1998. (Also the same opening where Jim McKay said, “the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat.”) Great memories.

So from this blog’s small beginnings in 2008 from my home in Cedar Falls, Iowa it’s exciting to see those stats and the map of the places around the world where this blog has reached. My passport has not quite reached 20 countries and I hope before I leave this rock I get a few more stamps. Bu in the meantime it’s nice to go there in spirit and word. If you’re reading this in some far away country, drop me a note and tell me what’s going on in production in your part of the world. (Include some pictures if you can and I’ll start an “Unlikely places” scrapbook.)

And for what it’s worth I’d like to share with you a short promotional video I just produced (via my company River Run Productions) for the Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber . In under two mintues you’ll see part of what makes the Cedar Falls-Waterloo Iowa area a great palce to live and work…and blog.

P.S. For those interested in the production aspects of that video. It was shot mostly with the Panasonic AF100 (with Nikon primes and Lumex lens), but also some shots are from the Panasonic HPX 170, Go Pro camera, and Nikon still photos.)

Scott W. Smith

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“If I got an email from Adam [Levenberg] with a script attached, I would assume it was great. If he suggested I read it immediately, I would.”
Ryan Engle
VP-Kopeson Entertainment (Platoon, The Fugitive, Se7en)

It’s hard to condense a three our conversation in under 1000 words—but I’ll try.

Last December, on Christmas eve, I wrote a post called Screenwriter Gift Ideas and mentioned that script consultant Adam Levenberg read a script of mine and gave me the best notes I had ever been given. Adam is the author of the book The Starter Screenplay.

While there is an mini-controversy over using/paying script consultants, my experience with Adam was great. And to be open, Adam offered his services for free to me to show the benefits of his expertise. The bottom line is not everyone has $100,000. plus to attend one of the top film schools. (And even those that do graduate from film school and have written several unproduced scripts can benefit from great notes. Heck, even Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian can and do benefit from good notes. )

If you’re like Diablo Cody and you can write a first script like Juno and have Jason Reitman hone the script with you great. Sylvester Stallone says that after he sold his Rocky script a producer worked with him everyday for eight months improving the script. And more recently the screenwriters of the Oscar nominated Bridesmaids talked about how the studios, producers (including Judd Apatow) worked with them for two year giving then “25,000 pages of notes.”

If you don’t have Jason Reitman or Judd Apatow in your corner—Adam Levenberg is a viable option to improve your script.

In that December post, I mentioned that in January I’d unpack some of the notes and insights I gained from Adam. So even though it’s already March somehow, here’s an overview—a top ten list:

First let me say that I wrote Shadows in the Dark (along with Scott Cawelti) over a three years period and the draft I sent Adam was, I think, number six. Several writer friends had given me notes up to that point on the version I sent Adam.

1) “Where’s the backstory?”—Here Adam hit me between the eyes right out of the gate. My story involves a young inexperienced cop in a small town faced with dealing with the first ever homicide in the town’s history. While I’ve always been clear of the cops backstory—and I’m sure it was in earlier drafts—it was too thin for Adam to see. As Adam and I talked ideas came to me on how being clearer on the cop’s backstory made the story stronger. The script now has a backstory with one simple scene—actually one shot.

This also set the tone that Adam had thoroughly read my script.

2) “What blue car?”— My story is a murder mystery and one of the clues is a blue car that was seen in the area around the time of the murders. At one point the cop mentions the clue of the blue car. Adam simply asked, “What blue car?” In my re-writing efforts to hone the script I had left out a key set-up.

3) “Lose the flashbacks”— Writers are often told to lose flashbacks, but they also love them. And year after year, they watch flashback after flashback in good movies so they know they can be effective. (Moneyball had flashbacks.) Adam simply said my flashbacks didn’t add anything and in one case the flashback I showed the character having the flashback wasn’t even in the scene he was having a flashback to.

4) “You have a seven page scene”—I’ve even written a post before about how the average length scene in a produced movie is between 1 & 3 minutes. Adam not only pointed out my seven page scene, but he showed how it was all for nothing. My monster length scene not only didn’t have a monster payoff, it didn’t really lead anywhere. So now that scene is not only shorter, but has more purpose.

5) What’s in a name?— Adam pointed out how one of my cops is simply named Cop #2. I justified that I didn’t want to get confuse the reader with a minor character. (Keeping track of who’s who in any screenplay is one of the challenges of reading any screenplay.) But Adam pointed out that though a small character, he does have a key scene and should have a name. He also, pointed out how I wasn’t consistent in that I had character in a one page scene that has a name. (His suggestion there was not to lose the character’s name,but to lose the scene altogether.)

6) Play up the cops love interest— My cop has on-off relationship with a woman in town that during this investigation is in the off mode. Adam’s suggestion is to develop that character and relationship more. (I think it was Sidney Lumet, or was it Sydney Pollack, who said he wouldn’t make a film that didn’t have a love story aspect. Either way it’s true of both The Verdict and Tootsie.)

7) “Police station is not busy enough”— Even though it’s a small town, a murder has happened. Actually, a quadruple homicide. The should be constant activity—phones ringing, people coming in and out of the door, people talking over people. I missed those details and since my conversation have noticed how crime stories deal with showing a busy environment.

8) Diarrhea of the mouth— So I have this Robert Duvall character who is a retired Atlanta detective who is a major character. And, yes, I actually wrote ever line with the thought that Robert Duvall could someday speak those lines. (Gotta dream, right.) Anyway, his dialogue is loaded with Southern wit and uncommon phrases. But there is too much of it and Adam pointed that out. As Faulkner said, sometimes you have to “kill your darlings.”

9) Word search “just”: There are just some words that for some reason you just use a lot. In my script it was the word “just.”

10) “Too much speculation”— My cop is trying to solve a case, that’s the main thrust of the story. But he needs to be doing more rather than speculating what he’s going to do or what happened.

10A) The ending. Adam showed me how I had built empathy for the cop—how the reader/audience is pulling for the cop to succeed and how though he technically does, he actually fails.

There’s lot more but that gives you a good idea of what a script consultant does. Adam and I probably discussed two dozen movies in this process. There was lots of give and take. How one movie handled exposition and how another movie handled a major twist. And along with the three-hour conversation, Adam also emailed me my script with more detailed notes attached. (Way too much to cover here.)

The great thing is it will not only helped make this script better, but hopefully will help me avoid some pitfalls with my next script—and the next one after that.

I’m a little over 1,000 words now so I’ll wrap this post up simply by saying that getting good notes on your writing is invaluable in improving your writing. You’re an adult and can decide how much time and money you can invest in screenwriting. There are lot of detours you can take–books, magazines, seminars, workshops, film schools, software, script contests, etc.—but what I like about the service that Adam provides is that it confronts you face to face with your writing. There’s no room for coffeehouse posing when an x-ray is taken to a script you’ve written.

Adam’s website is Hire A Hollywood Executive.

Scott W. Smith

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2012 Oscars: World Cinema Road Trip

I thought it would be interesting to take all the 2012 Oscar-nominated live action films and see where their stories take place.

Best Picture

The Artist—Hollywood, California 
The Descendants—Honolulu, Hawaii 
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close —New York, New York
The Help—Jackson, Mississippi
Hugo-Paris, France
Midnight in Paris—Paris, France
Moneyball—Oakland, California 
The Tree of Life—Waco, Texas
War Horse— England & France

Documentary Feature

Hell and Back Again—Afghanistan & North Carolina
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front—NYC & Washington state
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory—West Memphis, Arkansas
Pina—Germany
Undeafeated—North Memphis, Tennessee

Documentary Short Subject

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement—Birmingham, Alabama
God Is the Bigger Elvis—Connecticut
Incident in New Baghdad—Baghdad, Iraq
Saving Face—Pakistan
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom —Japan

Short Film (Live Action)

Penecost-Ireland
Raju—India
The Shore—Ireland
Time Freak—Ancient Rome
Tuba Atlantic—Norway

From that perspective I’d have to say that France came out on top, especially when you factor in the the writer/director (as well as lead actors) of the Oscar-winning film The Artist are from France. But in the United States, the region of The South did pretty well. Pretty amazing that the entire Southern California area only came up with one film in this batch. The Artist, a period piece set in the 1920s-30s of greater Los Angeles took advantage of many old landmarks including the Bradbury Building.

I haven’t seen all of these films, but what do you think the most unlikely place was to set an Oscar-nominated film from this batch?

Scott W. Smith

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“Documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a warrior for truth.”
Ellie Knaus/Huffington Post 

When Americans think about Pakistan & Iran the first think that comes to mind is…well, not movies. And certainly not Oscar-winning movies. In fact, a filmmaker in Pakistan had never won an Oscar until last week when Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Academy Award (Best Documentary Short) for her documentary Saving Face (co-directed with Daniel Junge).

Though Obaid-Chinoy is from Karachi, Pakistan she actually went to school at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Saving Face will air on HBO this week (Thursday March 8, 2012).

Iran also had not produced an Academy Award-winning film until last week when Asghar Farhadi accepted the Oscar (Best Foreign Language Film) for his film A Separation. Since 2003 his other films, Dancing in the Dust, The Beautiful City, Fireworks Wednesday, and About Elly have all won various awards at film festivals around the world.

Scott W. Smith

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