Archive for April, 2012

David Trottier is someone who’s been banging the drum of inspiring screenwriters outside of L.A. long before I started this blog (and even long before I moved to Iowa):

“Living outside of the Los Angeles area is only a problem after you’ve sold your first script and only if you’re selling directly to a Hollywood-based company. And it may not be a problem even then. You can market your script from anywhere. Most Hollywood producers are more concerned about your writing ability than your current domicile….Don’t let your current residence deter you from pursuing a screenwriting career. Concentrate on your writing first and your geography problems second.”
David Trottier
The Screenwriter’s Bible 3rd Edition (Published 1998, 1st edition 1993)
Chapter titled: How to break into Hollywood when you live in Peoria

Scott W. Smith

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Bang the Drum Slowly

“Today’s film business is decentralized…You can live in Kalamazoo, Michigan or Ames, Iowa and make your own movies if you want. Many independent filmmakers are scattered throughout the country happily working in a less frantic, less incestuous atmosphere than they would face in Hollywood.”
Joseph McBride
Writing in Pictures; Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless
pages 298-299

P.S. Though this book was published in February 2012, this is the drum I’ve been beating on this blog since January 2008. In fact, upcoming is an interview that I did with a filmmaker from Kalamazoo. (And for good measure I did drive through Ames, Iowa this week on my way to a shoot.)

Scott W. Smith

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“To have the president of the United States join us in discussing the issues of our time is a special honor.”
University of Iowa President Sally Mason
Iowa City, Iowa
April 25, 2012

Iowa has been a popular state this week. First Lady Michelle Obama was here on Tuesday and President Obama was here yesterday. It appears from the interviews I was hired to shoot for a D.C. group on Tuesday and Wednesday in Des Moines, that these days Michelle is more popular than her husband.

From what I (a registered non-party voter) can gather from the African-American, the Romanian immigrant, the retired Marine, and the transgender college student we interviewed—all who voted for Obama in ’08—I think you might hear a lot about hope and change (and “It’s the economy stupid”) in the next presidential election. But those slogans will be coming from a different corner.

(It’s fun to be paid to be a fly on the wall. This should be should an interesting election year.)

Three 15 hour+ days have me running to keep up on the blog, so here are a couple of photos I took in passing during my shoots this week that I’ll include in my “Postcards from the Road” category. (Bonus points if anyone can tell me who the pro bowler is from our meal stop yesterday at the hipster-60s style High Life Lounge. “Isn’t it time you lived the High Life?”)

To do my job to help the economy I made it 3 for 1 postcard day.

P.S. On my midnight drive home last night I kept awake listening to Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works CD book. I’m was enjoying the content so much I could have just kept driving north on I-35 past Minneapolis, and even Duluth, and just gone all the way to Winnipeg. If you haven’t heard of the book, check out my post Bob Dylan’s Brain.

Scott W. Smith

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Here’s an exchange found in Creative Screenwriting magazine, Volume 4, #3 (Fall 1997) that should be an encouragement to you wherever you are writing in the world;

Geoff Jordan: You’ve written a couple of scripts set in Omaha, Nebraska. Why?
Alexander PayneBecause I kind of ‘get” Omaha’s world. If you’re going to make movies in whatever country you’re in, you want to somehow “capture” it. It’s kind of a cliche that early in your career you always go to your roots. It’s all about what you know, or think you know, even if you don’t. I just like Omaha. I’ve always lived here. I mean, my grandparents were here; my father was here. My whole life has been here. Even when I left to go to college at eighteen, I’ve always come back here. So, there’s a kind of constant thread that now, as I’m starting to make movies, it’s kind of fun to go back.

Since that interview, Payne has won two Oscars for his screenwriting; Sideways (2005) and The Descendants. Neither which happen to be set in Omaha as were his films Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt, and Election.

P.S. Bonus for readers of this blog in Greece; While Alexander Payne was born in Omaha, Nebraska, he is of Greek decent and was born with the name Alexander Constantine Papadopoulos.

Scott W. Smith

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Gotta keep rollin’, gotta keep ridin’
Gotta keep searchin’ till I find what’s right
Bob Seger
Roll Me Away 

I was in the big city today—Des Moines. Late Friday I received a call from a group in D.C. to do a video shoot in Des Moines on Tuesday and Wednesday, but it didn’t have anything to do with the First Lady also being in town. Though I did get to shoot with the Sony F3 for the first time which was nice. (And actually not far from the Iowa Fair Grounds where I photographed Barack and Michelle Obama on their way to the White House back in ’08.)  And I did photograph this guy as he rode off into the sunset today on his Harley.

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“You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”
Don Draper (Jonn Hamm)
Mad Men

“Well, what if there is no tomorrow?”
Phil (Bill Murray)
Groundhog Day

Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee says that movies, “Favor the great saint, or the great sinner”— Chuck Colson was both. I had the good fortune 10-15 years ago to not only meet Colson but work with him on several occasions.

Colson died a couple of days ago at age 80. The LA Times said, “He was Richard Nixon’s ‘hatchet man,’ the president’s ‘evil genius,’ who by his own admission was ‘ruthless in getting things done’ in the Watergate years, when the things that he and others in the White House were getting done would become a national disgrace and send Colson to prison.”

It would be his time at the Maxwell Correction Facility in Alabama that would define his life. His Ivy League education at Brown, his Marine training, his law practice, and his rise to be the President of the United States’ right hand man were just a preface to watch a man fall from grace. (Kind of like that opening visual in the TV series Mad Men.)

“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul.”
Mark 8:36

But it was Colson’s very public fall that set up his life’s work. His religious awakening while in prison set up his founding Prison Fellowship Ministries. What the The New York Times called a “remarkable reveral.” While Colson also became a much in demand speaker and writer,  Timothy M. Phelps in the LA Times wrote, “he apparently never amassed great personal wealth from his work. He took an annual salary of $113,000 from his prison groups and donated all royalties from his 30 books, substantial speaking fees, and the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion he was awarded in London in 1993 to his prison fellowship.”

Colson’s story was made into the film Born Again in 1978. That was back when “born again” became a bumper sticker catch phrase, around the time when “born again” became part of the Jimmy Carter campaign on his way to being elected to president in 1976.

Interestingly, it was not the time in the White House for either the Democrat Carter or the Republican Colson that will be their lasting legacies. After Carter left the White House he founded Habitat for Humanity, and after Colson left the White House (and prison) he founded Prison Fellowship—which operates in 1,367 prisons in the U.S. and has more that 200,000 inmates participating in its program.

“I used to look at life from the top looking down. In prison, you learn to look at life from the underside and you see people hurting and suffering and it has changed my whole perspective.”
Chuck Colson

One of the most memorable experiences of my life is going into the Lake County Correctional Institute in Florida and taking part in a Prison Fellowship weekend. I’ve never been around a group of people who sang deeply more than those men of faith.  The Bible says, “Remember those in prison.” and that’s what became the redemptive life work of Colson the last 35 years of his life.

It’s no surprise that Colson found a connection to the movie Walk the Line.  Back when that film was released back in 2005, Colson wrote;

Early in the new film Walk the Line, opening today, a twelve-year-old Johnny Cash is talking with his adored older brother Jack. Johnny asks how Jack is able to remember all the stories in the Bible. Jack, who wants to be a preacher, responds, “You can’t help people unless you can tell ’em the right stories.”

It’s a truth that the filmmakers clearly bore in mind as they made the movie. Walk the Line, a beautifully made film about Cash’s early years, is many stories in one: a story of sin, self-absorption, recklessness, grace, and redemption.
Chuck Colson
The Right Story  

Which brings us back to those above quotes from Groundhog Day and  Mad Men. The times I worked on the production side of Colson’s talks, the people he often quoted were the Nobel Prize writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn who spent time in the Russian Gulag, William Wiberforce who worked to end the slave trade in Britain, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer—the German Lutheran pastor who was arrested and executed related to his anti-Nazi views and actions.

Solzhenitsyn, Wilberforce, Bonheoffer and Colson were different kinds of mad men—reformers—ones that believed that there is a tomorrow. Because ultimatley if there is no tomorrow, then today doesn’t really matter.

Scott W. Smith


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I really should say “Story Plotting the J.K. Rowling Way,” but Harry Potter seemed more catchy and fun. But it was J.K. Rowling who actually wrote the Harry Potter books  empire. The one that helped create her net worth (as of March 2011) of over one billion dollars. Want to know what part of her magic formula is? Here’s a story grid outline that’s been kicking around the internet for a couple of years and attributed to Rowlings. At Slashfilm, Germain Lusser they wrote, “It’s a piece of loose leaf paper where she outlines several chapters of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and, looking at this page, it’s quite obvious that Rowling knew exactly what was going on with everything in her books.”

Scott W. Smith

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“In 1998, I had finished writing ‘Toy Story’ and ‘A Bug’s Life’ and I was completely hooked on screenwriting. So I wanted to become much better at it and learn anything I could. So I researched everything I possibly could. And I finally came across this fantastic quote by a British playwright, William Archer: ‘Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.’ It’s an incredibly insightful definition.

When you’re telling a story, have you constructed anticipation? In the short-term, have you made me want to know what will happen next? But more importantly, have you made me want to know how it will all conclude in the long-term? Have you constructed honest conflicts with truth that creates doubt in what the outcome might be? An example would be in ‘Finding Nemo,’ in the short tension, you were always worried, would Dory’s short-term memory make her forget whatever she was being told by Marlin. But under that was this global tension of will we ever find Nemo in this huge, vast ocean?”
Two-time Oscar winner Andrew Stanton  (Wall-E, Toy Story)
TED talk: The Clues to a Great Story
(Also has interactive link of Stanton’s talk.)

H/T to Scott Myers at Go Into The Story for pointing the way to Stanton’s TED talk.

Related links:

Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 3)
The Dark Side of Pixar & Disney
Writing “Finding Nemo”

Scott W. Smith

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Reading departures signs in some big airport
Reminds me of the places I’ve been…
Jimmy Buffett
Changes in Lattitudes, Changes in Attitudes 

If you ever wonder why you ride the carousel,
You do it for the stories you can tell…
Jimmy Buffett
Stories You Can Tell 

Jimmy Buffett has said when he was a youth in Mobile, Alabama he once saw a live performance of the musical South Pacific and started to dream about far away lands. He learned how to play the guitar and tell stories and that was his ticket to far away places. Somewhere in my youth I picked up Jimmy Buffett’s albums and started to dream about far away lands. I learned how to use a camera and tell stories and that’s been my ticket.

Last night I listened to the Buffett concert in Des Moines over the live feed on Radio Margaritaville. Brought back a few memories from the far side of the world. Whenever I speak at colleges I show various shot from my adventures, I always tell them that when I graduated from high school I had only been to three states in my life—only if you count the Atlanta airport on my way from Florida to visit my grandma in Dayton, Ohio.

And Buffett himself has a line in one of his songs that goes, “Never been west of New Orleans, or east of Pensacola. My only contact with the outside world was an RCA Victorla.” So if you have a drop of wanderlust in your blood, and haven’t traveled as much as you’d like, memorize one of my favorite quotes:

“We tend to over estimate what we can do in one year, and underestimate what we can do in ten.”
Richard Foster

And if you need some musical inspiration for your dream, here’s Buffett’s song Some Day I Will.

Thanks to Jimmy Buffett for giving me a jump start to dream of far away places. And thanks to God for providing opportunities to work in this great big beautiful and mixed up world. BTW—If you have some stories you need to tell, contact me at RiverRun.tv (Have camera, will travel).

Best wishes on your own adventures—and send me a postcard. Here are some of mine from over the years:

Samaria, Russia

Samaria, Russia

Kindston, Jamacia

Kingston, Jamacia

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, Germany

Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa

Denali National Park, Alaska

Sea Plane in Brazil

Sea Plane in Brazil

A taste of Florida in Waterloo, Iowa
(Some adventures are close to home.)

 Scott W. Smith

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“His body was battered, his whole world was shattered
And all he could do was just cry…”
Jimmy Buffett
He Went to Paris

When you think of musician Jimmy Buffett in terms of geography you probably think of the south, but did you know part of his early performing roots were in the Midwest?

Buffett was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi and raised in Mobile, Alabama, graduated from college in Hattiesburg, MS (Southern Miss ’69, journalism degree), and started performing in public in Biloxi, MS and New Orleans, Louisiana, spent time in Nashville, Tennessee and broke through while living in Key West, Florida. So where exactly does the Midwest play into his success as a singer/songwriter/storyteller? I’ll let Buffett explain:

“Chicago is where I truly cut my teeth as a performer, working as the opening at the Quiet Knight. I opened for a variety of people from Neil Sedaka to Bob Marley, and when I got frustrated with the crowds, the old one-armed clean-up man with the big German shepherd always consoled me. It took me a few days of asking to find out that Eddie was more than a janitor. He was a gifted painter and a wonderful pianist. We would stay up after the club closed, and he would sing me songs from the Spanish Civil War where he had fought as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade against the Fascists. Eddie Balchowsky was indeed an inspiration. He was larger than life, and as Mark Twain said, ‘he’d gone out into the territory.’ This song is a tribute to his spirit.”
Jimmy Buffett
Introduction to He Went to Paris
The Parrot Head Handbook from Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads

Here’s He Went to Paris in the form of a 1973 music video:

And another reason to love You Tube— below is a clip from a 1989 documentary that actually features an interview with none other than Eddie Balchowsky (including him playing the piano one-handed) just months before he died in an accident in Chicago.

To borrow from that Pat Conroy post a couple of days ago, writers do what Buffett did, they go do work to do a job and wait for the one-armed man to show up. That’s where stories come from. That’s how you “capture the magic” (to a use phrase Buffett spoke a few years ago on a 60 Minutes interview).

By the way, back in the folk music heyday, Chicago had a steady stream of artists playing there— Jim Croce,  John Prine and Steve Goodman to name a few. One of my favorite Buffett recordings was written by the Chicago-born Goodman, Banana Republic.

And just in case you’ve never heard of Steve Goodman, here’s a video of him singing his signature song that has been covered a few times since he wrote it:

Related Post:

Screenwriting the Chicago Way  (In this 2008 post, I said if Screenwriting from Iowa …and Other Unlikely Places had a theme song that City of New Orleans would be a fitting choice.)

The Bump In Factor (Post about meeting Dirck Halstead at NAB a couple of years ago. Dirck was a combat photographer for LIFE magazine and was working for UPI during the fall of Saigon. He now heads up TheDigitalJournalist.)

P.S. The Jimmy Buffett concert tonight (April 17,2012) in Des Moines will be broadcast on Radio Margaritaville at 9PM easten time.

Update: Found this article Painter, Poet Ed Balchowsky at the Chicago Tribune website.

Scott W. Smith

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