Archive for August, 2012

On Wednesday the sun finally came out and the waves all but disappeared on the east coast of Florida after tropical storm Issac turned into Hurricane Issac in the Gulf of Mexico. I kicked around New Smyrna Beach looking for a fitting Endless Summer-like photo and came across these two surfers.

New Smyrna Beach is a little beach town tucked away from the more touristy areas of Daytona Beach to the north, and Cocoa Beach to the south. I’ve been going there since I was two years old, and despite its nickname as “The shark bite capital of the world” I have spent hundreds of hours there in the water and have never once seen a shark there.

In keeping this blog on track about screenwriting, I can’t think of too many working Hollywood screenwriters who are or were screenwriters. But it is worth mentioning the documentary Hollywood Don’t Surf—a movie that was released last year and played at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The doc connects Hollywood’s fascination to surfing over the last fifty years.

By the way, that title—Hollywood Don’t Surf—is a play on the famous line spoken by Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now—”Charlie don’t surf.” That line was written by a surfer/screenwriter—John Milius. On the commentary track of Big Wednesday—which Milius wrote & directed— he talks about going surfing before the day’s shooting started.

Before Milius hit the surf, attended USC film school, or became an Oscar-nominated screenwriter—he was born in St. Louis where his father was a shoe manufacturer. It’s worth noting that Tennessee Williams was a shoe salesman in St. Louis (as was the character Tom in his play The Glass Managerie).

P.S. After spending the day at the beach again on Thursday, I flew back to Iowa just in time to catch the remnants of Hurricane Issac. Just before I took off I also learned  I was nominated for another Upper Midwest Emmy for a project I shot earlier this year. Then after I landed I got a call about a shoots in Miami and Dallas with some NFL players. A nice end to a relatively slow month on my end. One thing the ocean teaches you is to be patient between waves and calm days. On stormy days it can also teach you to pray for and appreciate the calm days.

Scott W. Smith

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Postcard #22 (Kelly Slater Statue)

“Quite simply, there is surfing before Kelly Slater, and then there is surfing now.”
Shaun Tomson
Surfer Magazine

Kelly Slater is larger than life—so is his statue in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

As a surfer, he’s won 11 ASP Surf Championships. As a statue, he’s bronze and built to withstand 140 MPH winds. (The statue was designed by Sam Drazich and his sister Tasha.)

Slater began surfing in Cocoa Beach as a youth and eventually became the most dominant surfer in the history of the sport.

“No sportsman in the world anywhere has for so many years been so far ahead of his peers—not Tiger, Lance, Ali, Michael Jordan, Gretzky, or Federer.”
Shaun Tomson
Surfer Magazine

Slater started surfing in what’s known “small wave capital of the world” (I was out in 1 & 2-foot waves today with a Go Pro camera) and he honed his skills there until he took his act out on the world stage surfing waves up to 40 feet. Slater’s a great example of “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Cocoa Beach itself, for a town that today has slightly over 12,000 core residents, and the immediate surrounding area has a solid history of being the proving grounds for great achievers. Before Slater was born in 1972, you can see shades of Cocoa Beach in the four-time Oscar-winning film The Right Stuff (1983), which depicts, “The original US Mercury 7 astronauts and their macho, seat-of-the-pants approach to the space program.”

Much of the movie takes places in Cocoa Beach and nearby Cape Canaveral where NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is located.

Slater himself has been featured in many surf films and videos and has extensive IMDB credits. I’ve never written a script about Florida’s East Coast and the surf culture there, but this trip has me kicking around ideas. Screenwriting from Cocoa Beach, New Symrna Beach or Sebastian Inlet has a nice ring to it.

Related posts:

Kelly Slater on the Digital Revolution
Off-screen Quote #12 (Kelly Slater)

Scott W. Smith

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When the outer bands of what would become Hurricane Isaac passed through Florida a few days ago it brought a lot of rain. Though the waves were mushy, it also brought out a few surfers. I took this picture in front of the pier at Cocoa Beach.

As a nice screenwriting connection to yesterday’s post on screenwriter Dudley Nichols, he co-wrote the screenplay for The Hurricane (1937) which was directed by John Ford.

That made me think of other movies that feature some aspects of a hurricane (or similar storms) and this is a partial list.

Key Largo (1948) 
The Perfect Storm (2000)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Condominium (1980)
Hurricane (1979)
The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Forces of Nature (1999)
Hurricane on the Bayou
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2008)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

P.S. The great surfer Kelly Slater is from Cocoa Beach so check out these posts:
Kelly Slater on the Digital Revolution
Off screen Quote #12 (Kelly Slater)

Scott W. Smith

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At the end of my post on Neil Armstrong (Shoot for the Moon) I wrote that Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dudley Nichols was also born in Wapakonita, Ohio where Armstrong was born. I’ve mentioned Nichols a couple of time on this blog but decided to dig a little deeper to see what I could find.

After graduating from Blume High School (also Armstrong’s school) he attended the University of Michigan. He spent a couple of years in the Navy and then became a reporter for the New York Evening News and then New York World. Before moving to California he spent a total 10 years as a journalist in New York City.

He not only racked up more than 60 credits on various movies, but according to Frank Beaver, “in my estimation [Nichols] was the first great writer for ‘talking pictures.'” Elsewhere I read him called the greatest screenwriter of the 30s. His first film credit was writing Men Without Women in 1930  beginning a long working relationship with director John Ford, writing eight Ford directed films including Stagecoach (1939). Nichols also co-wrote Brining Up Baby, wrote two screenplays based on Eugene O’Neill’s plays (The Long Voyage Home, Morning Becomes Electra), wrote the screenplay for Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Two things Nichols is most known for is not only winning the Oscar for writing The Informer ( 1935), but by becoming the first person in Academy Award history to turn down the award as a protest. You can read the reasons he turned down the award, and others who have also done so, in the LA Times article They Snubbed the Oscars by Susan King.)

In 1937 and 1938 he was the president of the Screen Writers Guild, which in 1954 became one of the groups that formed the Writers Guild of America. So he had a pretty full career before he died in 1960.

I couldn’t find any interviews done with Dudley Nichols, but the following quote is attributed to Nichols though I do not know the original source.

Jesus of Nazareth could have chosen simply to express Himself in moral precepts; but like a great poet He chose the form of the parable, wonderful short stories that entertained and clothed the moral precept in an eternal form. It is not sufficient to catch man’s mind, you must also catch the imaginative faculties of his mind.
Dudley Nichols

Nichols also produced and directed three films including Government Girl (1943) that he co-wrote with Budd Schulberg and starred Oliva de Havilliand. Other scripts of his were directed by Michael Curtiz, Howard Hawks and starred Henry Fonda, Kathrine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, Just a few of some of the biggest names of that Hollywood era that worked with Nichols.

Scott W. Smith

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 “The Eagle has landed.”
Neil Armstrong

Before Neil Armstrong took that historic step of being the first person to walk on the moon, he took his first steps in the small town of Wapakoneta, Ohio where he was born in 1930. It was reported that as teenager he worked in a pharmacy there, ‘saving money for flying lessons.” A reminder that before you shoot for the moon, start small.

Small steps before giant leaps.

Because one of the themes of this blog is people rising up from small (seemingly unlikely places) and doing great things, I think—though not a screenwriter— Neil Armstrong’s life story qualifies.

I was eight years old living in Central Florida when I saw Apollo 11 lift into the sky, and I remember on July 20, 1969 watching a small, fuzzy TV broadcast of Armstrong landing the lunar module on the moon and later taking those first steps on the moon and uttering, “That’s one small small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

That line was not improvised, but following a great literary tradition—it is unknown who actually wrote that line. Nor was it properly delivered. It was supposed to be, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” (Armstrong would say later that the word “a” was lost in transmission.)

Regardless, putting a man on the moon was one of the great technological and symbolic acts of modern history. (It was also one built on years of failures and an immeasurable amount of man hours.) I’m old enough to remember all the debates about how it was impossible to put a man on the moon. So on July 20, 1969—suddenly everything seemed possible.

When I heard news that Armstrong died two days ago quite a few memories came to mind, including how “The Eagle has landed” became a catch phrase for “mission completed.” There is a poster in my office of the front page of the New York Times that proclaims “MEN LAND ON MOON.” (One time where all caps is fitting.)

I thought it also fitting that Armstrong died in Cincinnati, just about an hour away from where Orville and Wilbur Wright designed and built the first successful airplane and where both also died.

It’s also worth noting that while Armstrong will be forever linked to walking on the moon, that of his 82 years of life, he only spend 2 hours and 31 minutes walking on the moon and a total of less than 24 hours on the moon. (His total time in space was just 8 days.)

“I believe that every human has a finite number of heartbeats and I don’t intend to waste any of mine.”
Neil Armstrong

So wherever you live, shoot for the moon—but keep the rest of your life in perspective.

P.S. As far as I can tell, the city of Wapakonita was named after a Shawnee Indian Chief. And Oscar-winning screenwriter Dudley Nichols (The Informer) was also born in Wapakonita in 1895 and wrote for more than sixty movies including Stagecoach, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Bringing up Baby. He was also the president of the Screen Writers Guild in 1937 & 1938. I bet when he died in Hollywood in 1964 he thought that no one more more accomplished then him would ever be born in Wapakonita .

Related posts:
Don’t Waste Your Life
Don’t Waste Your Life (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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“Somebody who worked as a crime reporter for two years in Raleigh-Durham is gonna have a lot more interesting things to talk about than some 22-year-old kid who grew up in Brentwood, who wants to be a writer because he likes the way the life looks.”
Writer/Director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, The Bourne Legacy)
Deadline Hollywood interview with Mike Fleming

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Over the past 15 years, I’ve had the opportunity to see many different aspects of Chicago (The Loop downtown, Ukrainian Village, Wrigley Field, Cabrini Green, Wicker Park, Oak Park, Highland Park) but yesterday was the first time I ever went to The Heart of Chicago. I was doing a video shoot in the Pilsen neighborhood, which is the mostly American Mexican community on the Lower West Side of Chicago. One thing that you can’t miss when you drive through the area is the large amount murals on the side of buildings. It adds a vibrant, colorful, creative vibe—and cultural context— to the area.

I actually can’t  remember another community anywhere in the Unites States where I’ve seen more large murals in one concentrated area. I image a nod of sorts to artist Diego Rivera who helped establish the Mexican Mural Movement. (You can see his works in many museums throughout the world including Sao Paulo Museum of Art, Heritage Museum in Russia, the Detroit institute of the Arts, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Franz Mayer Museum, Mexico City, and the Art Institute of Chicago.)

A different kind of storytelling with pictures. (Anyone know who the artist is who did this mural?)

P.S. Though I was in Chicago less than 24 hours on this recent trip it was like going around the world. Stayed in Greektown (A little less Greek since they built a Walgreens in the My Big Fat Greek Wedding area), for breakfast I had southern style shrimp and grits at Wishbone (around the corner from Harpo Studios and a favorite place of Oprah’s), Mexican food for lunch, and pasta in Little Italy for dinner.

Related posts:
Screenwriting da Chicago Way
Ferris John Hughes & the North Shore

Scott W. Smith

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Filmmaking in the Arctic

I’m in Chicago today for a video shoot and it’s always interesting to see what eclectic mix of movies are playing. Beyond the usual Hollywood fare, on this summer day in 2012, you could see everything from the 60th Anniversary event of Singin’ in the Rain, This Gun for Hire (1942) starring Alan Ladd & Veronica Lake, This Day and Age (1933) directed by Cecil B. DeMille, The Queen of Versailles, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Killer Joe, Searching for Sugar Man, or catch one of the films at the 18th Annual Black Harvest Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Lots of choices. Unfortunately, I won’t have time to see any of them on this trip. But since I just wrote a post called Screenwriting from the Arctic (& Beyond), I also noticed that at Navy Pier IMAX Theatre in Chicago they are playing a 3-D film released this year called To the Arctic, a documentary directed by Greg MacGillivary and narrated Meryl Streep. Interesting projects happening all over the world…and in usual places.

Scott W. Smith




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“I always say [The Fastest Runner] is the most Indian movie ever made. It’s much more Indian than Smoke Signals.
Chris Eyre, director of Smoke Signals

“We picked up a camera and started recording our own history. Stories that we used to hear when we were children. What we really belive and why we are here.”
Zacharias Kunuk, director The Fast Runner (Atanrjunt)

Nanook of the North is one of oldest & most popular films showing indigenous people. The documentary released in 1922 was produced, directed and written by Robert J. Flaherty and was shot in the Canadian Arctic.  Nanook and his family are Inuit (in the United States they would be called Eskimo).  The movie is available through The Criterion Collection.

In the documentary Reel Injun, it was basically stated that American Indians in particular were a part of early film history—Thomas Edison filmed Indians. But as the Great Depression set-in films with Indians did not find a wild audience, until the narrative that began to appear in the movies was the Indian as savage—the bad guys as America expanded westward. It wasn’t until the Billy Jack character in Born Losers (1967)—featuring the character Billy Jack—and Little Big Man (1970 (and starring Dustin Hoffman and Chief Dan George) that the American Indian began to find their positive voice again in cinema.

In 1989 there was an indie film called Powwow Highway that Roger Ebert called “Unforgettable” followed the next year by the success with Dances with Wolves in 1990 giving a kickstart to a wave of films featuring not only American Indians—but indeginous groups around the world. And film not only made about Native Indians but by Native Indians.

Thunderheart (1992)
Once We Where Warriors (1994)
Wagons East (1994)
Legends of the Fall (1994)
Dead Man (1995)
Dance Me Outside (1995)
Smoke Signals (1998)
Grey Owl (1999)
Whale Rider (2002)
Skins (2002)
Rabbit Proof Fence (2002)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Perhaps the most celebrated film in this new era is Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) winner of the Camera d’or award for Best First Feature at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival in 2001 and was Canada’s top grossing film in 2002. The script was written by Paul Apak Angilirq, Norman Cohn, Zacarias Kunuk, Heve Paniaq, and Pauloose Qulitalik.

“The movies made in the north [Arctic] are incredibly special. They are progress. There’s finally an aboriginal cinema that isn’t someone elses. The gaze is ours. But at the same time you have a whole aboriginal  cinematic movement springing up all over the world, where you have New Zealand filmmakers, filmmakers in Australia, and filmmakers in North America and South America, making truly aboriginal movies.”
Jesse Wente
Ojibway Film Critic

“You don’t  have to go out and make great representatives of native people, we’re not asking for that. We’re not asking to be nobles, or righteous, or good all the time—we’re asking to be human.”
Chris Eyre, director of Smoke Signals

P.S. According to Wikipedia “the Arctic region includes parts of Canada, Russia, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, the United States (Alaska), Sweden, Finland, and Iceland.” Think cold and remote. The population of Point Barrow, Alaska (the northernmost point in the USA) is just over 4,000, and the average winter climate is right around -20 degrees. (And I thought Iowa was a fairly remote with long cold winters when I moved here in 2003. It’s all relative I guess.)

Scott W. Smith

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“In that one character [Billy Jack] you have embodied pretty much all of the 70s angst and anger that one could have in America. “
Jesse Wente
Ojibway Film Critic

[Chief Bromden] in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest started out as the stereotypical Indian and it rose to a level of humanity as the picture unfolds. He has to become the symbol of freedom for America really.”
Wes Studi
Cherokee Actor

Over the weekend I watched the documentary Reel Injun and realized that some Native & American Indians saw the 1971 movie Billy Jack as the movie that first signaled that the Indians were fighting back on film.

Some say that John Ford’s last film Cheyenne Autumn (1964)  was an apology of sorts to his negative treatment of American Indians. Regardless, the long run of American westerns ended in the 60s. And along with it began to crumble the Indian as the perpetual bad guy.

It was a time of transition for America, President John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, Bob Dylan’s song Blowing in the Wind was also released in ’63, the Beatles came to American to tour in ’64, the Civil Rights Act was passed in ’64, the march from Selma to Montgomery was in ’65, U.S. troops were heavily involved with the Vietnam war during this time, 1967 was the summer of love in Haight Ashbury district in San Francisco where hippies wore headbands doing their version of Indian dress and smoking their version of the peace pipe, then in ’68 Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot to death, Woodstock took place in ’69, and that same summer man landed on the moon.

That’s quite was quite a decade. The era was ripe for Billy Jack. Billy Jack as a character actually came on the screen in 1967 in the movie Born Losers. It was the flip side of the coin to Roger Corman’s pro-biker rebellion film The Wild Angels released by American International Pictures (AIP) in 1966.  I imagine it’s success helped producer/writer/director Tom Laughlin fund Born Losers the following year introducing the half-Indian/Green Beret trained Billy Jack character. Laughlin also played Billy Jack and the sub-$400,000 budgeted movie made $36 million at the box office. But it was the second movie (Billy Jack) in 1971 that allowed Laughlin the opportunity to make the film he’d been trying to make since the mid-50s.,  a film about injustices done to American Indians.

It was released in 1971 with limited success, but Laughlin orchestrated a re-release in 1973 that took the movie that cost less than $1 million and ended up grossing around $70 million at the box office. It paved the way for the Indians to fight back on film. By the way, it’s hard to watch the snake scene in The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) —along with Billy Jack’s hat—and not think that the character had some influence on Indiana Jones a few years later. John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) also has similarities to Billy Jack. Rambo is also half-Indian (Navajo) and was a Green Beret in Vietnam and is only violent when provoked.  David Morrell wrote the Rambo character in the novel First Blood that was published in 1972. Coincidence?

“Billy Jack was presented as an action hero which is something we saw emerge in the 70s, which is a native-style hero who would use physical violence to enact justice.”
Jesse Wente
Ojibway Film Critic

One of the most famous Billy Jack scenes is when he says to a corrupt businessman, “I’m going to take this right foot and I’m going to wop you on that side of your face. And you want to know something? There’s not a damn thing you’re going to be able to do about it”—moments before dropping him with one kick. Billy Jack featured the martial art known as Hapkido.  (Keep in mind Bruce Lee didn’t make his first film until 1971.) Where was Billy Jack during Wall Street’s financial meltdown?

“The Indians start to fight back. Not just in the movies, but in real life as well.”
Cree Filmmaker Neil Diamond (co-director Reel Injun)

Like Watergate  & President Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and politics in general the water gets murky even in the world of the American Indian Movement. Fast forward to 1990 when Dances with Wolves was released. In the documentary Reel Injun, the Indians interviewed seemed divided on its impact. Some praising its portrayal of Indians as three-dimensional characters, particularly the performance of Graham Greene. Some just dismiss it:

“It’s a story about a white guy and the Indians are T&A….we’re just backdrop.”
John Trudell
Poet, actor & former chairman of the American Indian Movement

And still others are angered by it.

“To treat my nation like we don’t know how to fight. We, the Lakota—the first nation to militarily defeat the United States of Amercia on the field of battle and Lawrence of the Plains (Kevin Costner’s character) has to teach us how to fight?”
Russell Means (Speaking of the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876)
Lakota Activist

What’s not debatable is the film was a huge financial success making well over $400 million at the box-office and won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Costner) and Best Writing (Michael Blake). (The ongoing debate will always  be whether or not  Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas was the better film.) But as one of the characters said it Smoke Signals, “It’s a good day to be indigenous.” Since Dances with Wolves Native Indians have been on the upward path in movies.

I thought my last post was the end of this run, but after watching Reel Injun I realized I wasn’t quite finished. Tomorrow will probably be the last post about Native Indians and we’ll look at how they’ve been finding their way to being in films and making their own films—finding their own voice— since the 90s until present day.

You can’t get more outside of Hollywood than Screenwriting from the Arctic, can you?

P.S. The Peabody Award-winning Reel Injun (directed by Neil Diamond. Catherine Bainbridge & Jeremiah Hayes) is currently available on instant Netflix.

Scott W. Smith

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