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Archive for April, 2012

As a dreamer of dreams and a travelin’ man
I have chalked up many a mile
Read dozens of books about heroes and crooks
And I learned much from both of their styles
Jimmy Buffett
Son of a Son of a Sailor 

Jimmy Buffett will be playing in Iowa Tuesday night. The Des Moines Register reported that it’s Buffett’s first concert in Des Moines since 1985.

Without Buffett there probably wouldn’t be a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa. No blog, no Emmy. No blog, no shout-out from Tom Cruise’s website, etc, etc.

Buffett’s first hit was Come Monday back in 1974. I was 13-years old— peak time for discovering music. By the time I was sixteen I was well versed in his albums A1A, Living & Dying in 3/4 TimeHavana Daydreamin’, and Changes in Attitudes, Changes in Latitudes. By the time I left the University of Miami for film school in California I was already indoctrinated into Son of a Son of  a Sailor, Volcano, and Coconut Telegraph and had already been to the Conch Republic and taken my first big road trip—to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

I’m not sure the first time I saw Buffett in concert, but I dug up an old file over the weekend and the first ticket stub goes back to ’78 at the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando. Probably seen him in concert at least 15 times. I took the concert photos above my senior year of high school in 1980 when Buffett opened for the Eagles at Tampa Stadium. (Back when we both had more hair, as you can see what I looked like back in the day with my hat and Buffett t-shirt.)

Lots of memories from outdoor concerts in Colorado (Red Rocks), California (The Greek Theater), Hawaii (Waikiki Shell) , and the most unusual indoor venue—the Jai-Alai Fronton in Casselberry, Florida during his Coconut Telegraph tour in ’81.

While his concerts are known to be quite a party, it was always the lyrics that drew me to Buffett. The stories. The people. The places.

He went to Paris, looking for answers
To questions that bothered him so
He was impressive young and aggresive
Saving the world on his own
Jimmy Buffett
He went to Paris 

For a kid that grew up on a dead-end street in Central Florida, Buffett opened up a world of curiosity, travel and adventure.

A world of Tony Lama boots, Carmen Miranda hats, Hemingway, John D. MacDonald, Key West, Aspen, Livingston, Montana, expatriates, Patsy Cline, Steve Goodman, Irma Thomas, manatees, sailing, steel drums, Paris, the Cafe Du Monde, Austin City Limits and a quest for paradise.

And there’s that one particular harbour
Sheltered from the wind
Where the children play on the shore each day
And all are safe within
Jimmy Buffett (written with Bobby Holcomb)
One Particular Harbour 

If you only know of Buffett’s music by Margaritaville or It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere, check out this song of his that Bob Dylan once said he liked (Highway 61 Meets A1A);

P.S. Did you know that there is actually a Key West, Iowa.

Related posts:

Sing Along with Mitch in Margaritaville

Euphoria (for 5 Minutes)

Days in the Sun

Writing Quote #31 (Hemingway)

Scott W. Smith

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“On my first night in Vienna, Jonathan [Carroll, author of Bones of the Moon] walked me down to the Danube, where we sat on a flight of steps leading down to the river. The dog walkers were out in force. Greetings were exchanged with small movements of the eyes, and the dogs sniffed one another fondly. Handsome and imperial, Jonathan looked every inch the American expatriate. He exuded a serenity and a seriousness that I lack. But he kept his eye on a woman at the next bridge. She was moving so slowly I though she might be leading a dogsled pulled by escargots. After an hour, the woman walked in front of us, and she bowed her head in acknowledgment of Jonathan. With great dignity, he returned the gesture. To my surprise, she was walking two enormous tortoises, displaced natives from an Ethiopian desert. The woman walked them every night, and Jonathan was always there to admire their passage. 

     ‘That’s what writers do, Conroy,’ he said. ‘We wait for the tortoises to come. We wait for that lady who walks them. That’s how art works. It’s never a jackrabbit, or a racehorse. It’s the tortoises that hold all the secrets. We’ve got to be patient enough to wait for them.’”
Pat Conroy
My Reading Life 

P.S. Not much I can add to that, except to say one of the most memorable moments of my life was when I was a youth and my cousins took me to Melbourne Beach, Florida one night. We waited as large Loggerhead sea turtles came out of the darkness onto the beach. They dug holes and laid eggs. unbelievably memorable. One of the benefits of growing up before cable TV. If you’re ever in Brevard Country between June and June check out the Sea Turtle Preservation Society to learn about turtle walks to observe the nesting. Until then, keep an eye out for those metaphorical tortoises.

Scott W. Smith

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“In 1928 I lost everything I had, and in 1936 I went broke again. So did most of the other soundly advised people in the county…I lost very little money through extravagance, I regret to say. Most of my losses were the result of the dubious pleasure of remarking over the phone, ‘Yes, go ahead.’”
Samson Raphaelson

Imagine your writing career talking off in the 1920s. That’s where playwright/screenwriter Samson Raphaelson found himself after his play The Jazz Singer had a long run on Broadway and then his play was turned into the first talkie film in 1927. You can imagine that for that moment in time life was good for Samson Raphaelson. Then 1928 came along ushering in the Great Depression which lasted more than a decade.

In his book, The Human Nature of Playwriting, Raphaelson said he went broke not once, but twice. His book is based on a class he taught in 1948 at the University of Illinois, and along with his writing advice he gave some practical financial advice to students that is just as valuable today as when he talked about in more than 60 years ago.

“A writer can live anywhere. I myself bought a modest house in the country, where the taxes are low. Ideally, one should live a simple, modest existence and provide for his old age—that is self-evident. I’m trying to tell you how in terms of my temperament and experience.
Samson Raphaelson
The Human Nature of Playwriting

I believe at the time Raphaelson taught that one semester class his home was in Pleasant Valley, PA—about 120 miles outside New York City.

Scott W. Smith

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Playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson would have been 54-years old when he guest taught a class one semester at the University of Illinois at Urbana back in 1948. At that time, along with his play (The Jazz Singer) that was performed over 300 times in Broadway, he had more than 25 feature credits as a screenwriter.

Yet I think the book that came out of teaching that class (The Human Nature of Playwriting) is an excellent example of what I’ve said before—produced screenwriters often don’t make the best teachers. They have a gift and talent to tell stories—and tell them like few can. When they write, to borrow Bob Dylan’s phrase, the ghost comes by.

But where Raphaelson’s book is thin on technical advice on writing he does give some great anecdotes from his writing career that can be extremely helpful.

“The worst play I ever wrote and my biggest flop was The Wooden Slipper. I worked on it harder and longer than anything else in my life—three years—and it was completely meaningless, full of technique and nothing else…The Wooden Slipper was a devastating failure when it opened in 1933. On the second night there were a hundred people in the house, many of them on passes. On the third night Dwight Wiman, the producer, decided to give no passes and about twelve people came…sitting there alone in the balcony, I saw the obvious —what was wrong with the play, how bad it was and why; and that was a great moment…When I think of that night, I remind myself to write about living people; to write unpreteniously, for I have no grandeur; to write humorously, for it is intolerable to see people as they are without the grace of humor; and to not write at all unless there are people in my heart—to live instead, and that isn’t easy, either.”
Samson Raphaelson

As the saying goes, “Success is a poor teacher.” The lesson of touching a burning stove is quickly learned.

In the class and book Raphaelson spends a lot of time letting students develop their ideas which I didn’t find very interesting. In Raphaelson’s later years he did teach playwrighting at Columbia University in New York and perhaps there is where he further developed a teaching style. (Any former Raphaelson students out there?)

Maybe all Raphaelson was doing in Urbana was what the best teachers do—simply investing time encouraging and fostering talent that some students have. Slogging through bad ideas and dead end scenarios in hopes that one or two in the class will have a break through and eventually have their work find its way to the big screen.

May your “Wooden Slippers” find their way to the stage or screen. And if flops, may you learn from your mistakes and make the next one better. Keep in mind that seven years after Raphaelson’s flop, the script he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion helped actress Joan Fontaine win an Oscar for her performance.

Scott W. Smith

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Back in January, I wrote a post about The Jazz Singer and how that movie was based on a Samson Raphaelson play and short story. The Jazz Singer was Raphaelson’s first film credit, but he went on to write and gain credits for more than a total of five decades. His two most well-known scripts were The Shop Around the Corner (1940) which starred Jimmy Stewart and was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and  Suspicion which featured an Oscar-winning performance by Joan Fontaine. (The film also co-starred Cary Grant and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.)

It turns out he wrote a book back in the late forties called The Human Nature of Playwriting. I’m not sure if any screenwriting blogs have discovered this book, but I had never heard of it before. It’s out of print, but I tracked now a copy at screenwriter John August’s old stomping grounds—Drake University in Des Moines. I don’t know if August ever checked this book out from the Cowles Library back in his undergraduate days, but I’m guessing it’s been there a couple of decades.

So a couple of months ago when I was doing some post-production work in Des Moines I found my way to the Drake campus to do a quick read of Raphaelson’s book. Raohaelson was born in New York City in 1894, but according to an article by Smith Glaney he spent his teenage years in Chicago and studied English at the Illinois Institute of Technology. (He graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1917 and that’s where his papers are archived.*) In the sping of 1948, well into his career, Professor Fred S. Slevert asked Raphaelson to speak to the school of Journalism at U of I. A stenographer was on hand to record the entire four-month class. And that was the basis for the book. And there it sits on the shelf at Drake, right next to the classic Kenneth Rowe book Write that Play.

So for the next few days I’ll pass on some quotes from the class.

“The creative piece of writing—play, story, poem, rides on emotion. Usually on the emotion of the central character. By emotion I mean hunger, a desire, something burning under that character, humming and beating like a motor, sending him forward.”
Samuel Raphaelson
The Human Nature of Playwriting

Emotion, huh? Glad I spent 40 days writing about emotion last year. Beginning with this David Fincher quote and concluding with 40 Days of Emotions.

*Back in 1921 Raphaelson wrote the fight song for the University of Illinois— “Fight, Illini!: The Stadium Song.” The next year he wrote the short story The Day of Atonement which got published and later became the play The Jazz Singer.

P.S. Excellent article where Betty Kaklamanidou compares Little Shop Around the Corner with the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film You’ve Got Mail.

Scott W. Smith

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“Keep a good head, and always carry a light bulb.”
Bob Dylan

“Every creative journey begins with a problem. It starts with a feeling of frustration, the dull ache of not being able to find the answer.”
Jonah Lehrer

Bob Dylan had just turned 24-years old when he wrote the song Like a Rolling Stone, a song Rolling Stone magazine decades later called The Greatest Song of All Time.

The beginnings of “Like a Rolling Stone” can be seen in a pair of offstage moments in Don’t Look Back. In the first, sidekick Bob Neuwirth gets Dylan to sing a verse of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway,” which begins, “I’m a rolling stone, I’m alone and lost/For a life of sin I’ve paid the cost.” Later, Dylan sits at a piano, playing a set of chords that would become the melodic basis for “Like a Rolling Stone,” connecting it to the fundamental architecture of rock & roll. Dylan later identified that progression as a chip off of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.”
500 Greatest Songs of All Time/Rolling Stone

Bob Dylan’s Brain happens to be the title of the first chapter of Jonah Lehrer’s excellent book Imagine: How Creativity Works. I’ve listened to that chapter on CD twice as Lehrer unpacks the neurons that were firing in Bob Dylan’s brain when he wrote Like a Rolling Stone back in ’65 in a small rural cabin in Woodstock, New York:

“He grabbed a pencil and started to scribble. Once Dylan began, his hand didn’t stop for the next several hours. ‘I found myself writing this song, this story, this long piece of vomit, twenty pages long,’ Dylan said. ‘I’d never written anything like that before and it suddenly came to me that this is what I should do.’ Vomit is the essential word here. Dylan was describing, with characteristic vividness the uncontrollable rush of a creative insight, that flow of associations that can’t be held back. ‘I don’t know where my songs come from,’ Dylan said. ‘It’s like a ghost is writing the song. It gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means.’ Once the ghost arrived, all Dylan wanted to do was get out of the way.”

But the important thing for you to realize is the flow of association didn’t come out of thin air. What Lehrer called Dylan’s “diversity of influences” came from his time as a youth listening to a mix of music on AM radio while growing up (with long winters) in Hibbing and Duluth, Minnesota. His influences were the books and poems he read. His early influences include his brief college career in Minneapolis and taking part in the music scene in Dinkytown. It was actually his time in the Twin Cities in 1959 when he shifted from a rock and roll to a folk emphasis.

“I knew that when I got into folk music, it was more of a serious thing. The songs are filled with more despair, more sadness, more triumph, more faith in the supernatural, much deeper feelings.”
Bob Dylan

By 1961 Dylan was playing in folk clubs around Greenwich Village in New York. In ’63 he had a hit with Blowin’ in the Wind, and just a couple of years later, Dylan had already played throughout the U.S. and Europe. He was successful and popular, yet it was Like a Rolling Stone that proved his real breakthrough as an artist.

“Listening to these ambiguous lyrics, we can hear his mental blender at work, as he effortlessly mixes together scraps of Arthur Rimbaud, Fellini, Bertolt Brecht, and Robert Johnson. There’s some Delta blues and ‘La Bamba’ but also plenty of Beat poetry, Ledbetter, and the Beatles. The song is modernist and pre-modern, avant garde and county & western. What Dylan did— and this is why he’s Bob Dylan—was find the strange thread connecting those despairing voices. During those frantic first minutes of writing, his right hemisphere found a way to find something new out of this incongruous list of influences, drawing them together into a catchy song”
Jonah Lehrer
Imagine: How Creativity Works

In many ways, Lehrer is building on what Arthur Koestler wrote in his 1964 book The Act of Creation and legendary designer Milton Glaser later did in Art is Work. It’s what I touched on back in ’08 in one of my all-time favorite posts, Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C). But Lehrer’s writing is more accessible that Koestler’s and he brings many fresh examples to how the creative process works.

Looking at Dylan’s influences, it’s no surprise that the song Like a Rolling Stone was the leading hit off the album titled Highway 61 Revisited. Highway 61 being that road that runs up and down the gut of the United States. A road that wanders along the Mississippi River from Duluth in northern Minnesota down through the Delta Blues country in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. An area that has been tremendously influential musically in places like St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans, and the famed Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi where blue great Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the Devil.

This is the heart of this blog Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. Sure books, blogs, seminars and schools can be helpful on one level—but don’t get caught up in playing follow the leader. While few will have the genius of Dylan, we all come from somewhere, from someplace.  The real gold is what’s kicking around in your head and heart. You have your own unique life experiences.You have your own unique blender of influences kicking around into your brain. Tap into that and hope that the ghost pays you a visit.

P.S. Jonah Lehrer’s website is jonahlehrer.com, his blog is Frontal Coretx, and his twitter address is @jonahlehrer.

August 1, 2012 Update: Los Angeles Times/Joanah Lehrer’s Bob Dylan quotes lead to resigination. 

Related Posts:

Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)
Revisiting “Highway 61 Revisited”
Highway 61 Meets A1A
Screenwriting from Duluth 

Scott W. Smith 

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Were you ever in the valley
Where the way is dark and dim?
Cup of Loneliness
Lyrics by George Jones and Burl Stephens 

How does it feel 
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown…

Like a Rolling Stone/ Lyrics by Bob Dylan

“I have been watching my life…it’s right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it.”
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Mad Men

The TV show Mad Men not only has style, it has theology. From the opening credit images symbolizing a falling man right up through the end of season two (that I just finished in my two week binge) Mad Men deals with lost and fallen people.

Time will tell if they find some sort of salvation. But new life and resurrection themes are what this time of the year are all about.

The ending of Mad Men episode #24 (The Mountain, written by Matthew Weiner & Robin Veith) has the perfect song for Easter time.  The George Jones song Cup of Loneliness sums up Don Draper’s life as season two comes to a close. This is the Good Friday song.

And since tomorrow is Easter Day there is the resurrection Sunday Mad Men song, also from season two that balances Cup of Loneliness quite well. It’s from episode 21, A Night to Remember (also written by Weiner & Veith) and the closing credit song is sung by Peter, Paul & Mary.

And since we’re stuck in the sixties and talking about Easter why don’t we conclude with the quintessential singer/songwriter from the ’60s. While Bob Dylan’s music was featured in season one of Mad Men, it was not this song where he sings about his “hero.”

Happy Easter.

P.S. A few days ago 80-year-old George Jones was hospitalized a respiratory infection. His website says he is resting at home now and plans to return to the stage April 20 in Minnesota. Another well-known 8o-year old was also hospitalized this week, Chuck Colson of Watergate fame. Known as Nixon’s “hatched man” he’s gone on to write several books including Loving God  following his conversion to Christianity. There is a movie based on his life called Born Again starring Dean Jones. I had the opportunity to work with Colson a couple of times in the ’90s and once did an video interview with the late Green Bay Packer great Reggie White for a promotional video for Prison Fellowship which Colson founded in 1976 after his own time in prison.  In light of the recent news reports about Charles Manson being up for parole, I remember Colson once giving a talk where he made the provocative comment that, “We are much closer to Charles Manson than Jesus Christ.” Though not universally agreed upon, I think Don Draper would agree with that sentiment.

Scott W. Smith

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This week I picked up the just published book Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless by Joseph McBride. He’s the perfect person to pull a quote from on this blog because he’s had an interesting career, which actually got a kickstart start here in the Midwest.

As a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison he first saw Citizen Kane, and then went on to watch it a total of 60 times as a student.* He spent six years working alongside Orson Welles, produced a documentary on John Ford, wrote the screenplay for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, has written and published several books on filmmakers, and now teaches at San Francisco State University where he’s been able to have top screenwriters visit his classroom.

Writer/director Peter Bogdanovivh says of Writing in Pictures, “Joe McBride’s comprehensive yet very succinct work should become a standard text.”

Now I don’t know how painless the quote I’ve pulled from McBride’s book is, but is a common thread that I have found over the four years of writing this blog:

“I didn’t sell my first screenplay until 1977, the seventh feature-length script I had written (I also had written dozens of short film scripts and filmed several of them myself). That’s one of the first lessons I will pass along to you. Don’t ever stop writing…So I had served a ten-year apprenticeship teaching myself how to write scripts before I became a professional.”
Joseph McBride 

Maybe painless, but certainly time-consuming.

* Because, as a student in the ’60s, McBride couldn’t afford to photocopy the script for Citizen Kane he hauled a manual typewriter to the reading room at the now Wisconsin Historical Society and typed an exact copy of the script. A great exercise in learning. Something McBride points out that a young David Mamet did with the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire.

Related Posts:
Screenwriting Quote #38 (Orson Welles)/He was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin
Screenwriting from Wisconsin
It Takes a Little Time Sometimes
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,ooo Hours
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) 

Scott W. Smith

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I just started a book on CD this week that you HAVE TO GET. It’s called Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. I’m sure I’ll be pulling quotes from it for weeks to come.

Lehrer gives a glimpse into the inner workings of how creativity works at Pixar.

“Everyday at the Pixar studio begins the same way. A few dozen animators and computer scientists gather in a small screening room filled with comfy velour couches. They eat Lucky Charms and Cap’n Crunch and drink organic coffee. Then the team begins analyzing the few seconds of film produced the day before, ruthlessly shredding each frame. (There are 24 frames per second.) No detail is too small to tear apart. I sat in on a meeting in which the Toy Story 3 team spent thirty minutes discussing the reflect properties of the plastic lights underneath the wings of Buzz Lightyear. After that, an editor criticized the precise starting point of a Randy Newman song. The music began when Woody entered the scene, but he argued that it should start a few seconds later, when Woody began running. Someone else disagreed, and a lively debate ensued. Both alternatives were tested. (It’s not uncommon for a Pixar scene to go through more than three iterations.) The team discussed the motivations of the character and the emotional connotations of the clarinet solo. By the time the meeting was over, it was almost lunch.”
Jonah Lehrer

And playing off that nicely is a quote found at the Go Into the Story blog:

“I get calls from producers down in Hollywood asking for the secret [Pixar] recipe. And I always say it’s really hard work, and committing to slog through the bad times. Trusting that if we stick with it and support each other we’ll get there. There’s no short cut for getting it right. We’re willing to keep going back to the drawing board, put it up, look at it, throw it all away and start over. We’re willing to do that over and over and over again. It’s not always fun—despite the images of us all riding around on scooters.

On every project, there’s a point where we think we’ll never crack it. We really despair. We think the story sucks. And that’s when everybody does the hand-holding and commits to making it better.”
Mary Colemon
Senior Development Executive at Pixar
Interview with Scott Myers at Go Into The Story

And allow me to go back to the Lehrer’s book one more time:

“Everybody at Pixar knows that there will be many failures along the way. The long days be filled with difficult conversations and disorienting surprises, and late-night arguments. But no one ever said making a good movie was easy. “If it feels easy than you’re wrong,” [Toy Story 3 director Lee] Unkrich says, ‘We know that screw-ups are an essential part of what we do here. That’s why our goal is simple, we just want to screw up as quickly as possible. We want to fail fast. And then we want to fix it—together.’”
Jonah Lehrer
Imagine: How Creativity Works  

P.S. Interested in working at Pixar? Check out their link for jobs and interships.

 Related posts:

Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 4)

Scott W. Smith

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“I guess I’m still from the old school. Accountability, discipline and leaving here with a degree are things I think should never change.”
Kim Mulkey
Women’s basketball coach at Baylor University

Did you know that perfection has deep roots in Tangipahoa Parish? You know, down in Southern Louisiana. (Population 113,137.)

In the communities of Tickfaw, Hammond, and Natalbany is where Baylor girls basketball coach, Kim Mulkey, was raised. Last night as she led her Baylor Lady Bears to a National Championship they did something that no team in the history of NCAA basketball had ever done—gone undefeated the entire season and won a total of forty games.

Excellence has long been a part of Mulkey’s life. While at Hammond  High School she played on four state championship teams, graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and was the class valedictorian.  As a player at Louisiana Tech she was an All-American player and helped lead her team to a national championship in 1982. She then became an Olympic Gold medalist in 1984. She was an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech where the girls basketball team won a national championship in 1988. According to USA Today, “She is the only woman to win NCAA championships as a player, an assistant and as a head coach.”

I know this is a blog on screenwriting, but it’s also about a sense of place. And about people coming from sometimes little known places who rise up and do amazing things. It’s about the process of getting better over time. Before Mulkey became a head coach she spent 15 years as an assistant. She earns a million dollars a year, and just a few days ago was named the Associated Press’ woman college basketball coach of the year. You could say she’s on a winning streak.

Congrats to Coach Mulkey and the entire Lady Bear team down in Waco.

BTW—If you’re ever down in the village of Tickfaw (pop. 617) there is a street there named Kim Mulkey Drive.

P.S. According to Wikipedia, “Tangipahoa comes from an Acolapissa word meaning ‘ear of corn’ or ‘those who gather corn.”

Related posts: Sex, Lies & Mr. Bill (Screenwriting from Louisiana)

Filmmaking in the Other LA

Scott W. Smith

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