Archive for December, 2012

“I know Eric Dickerson is feeling so good right now.”
Running back Adrian Peterson

Eric Dickerson Sign PhotoFor sale?

Eric Dickerson signed photo in my office    

It was almost a cliché, but it turned into a great ironic ending.

I’m not talking about a movie, but yesterday’s game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers.

The Vikings needed a win in the last regular game of the season to make the playoffs, and their running back Adrian Peterson had a shot breaking the single season rushing record that’s stood for almost 30 years. (Held by Eric Dickerson when he played for the Los Angeles Rams.)

Add to the back story that exactly a year ago Peterson tore his ACL on his left knee in a game that required surgery. Then factor in that with under two minutes to go in the game with the score score tied and the Vikings having the ball, Peterson only needed 39 yards to break the record.

Peterson got in a couple short runs and then ran for 26 yards on his final run, but fell nine yards short of the record. Dickerson can revel in his long standing accomplishment (his glorious feat) at least one more year.

But Peterson’s run did set up the game winning field goal and the Vikings are in the playoffs. He failed to reach his personal goal, but did help his team accomplish their goal.

It’s that kind game, that kind of unpredictable drama that I believe writer/director Woody Allen meant when he said if he had to chose between watching movies and watching sports he’d chose watching sports.

Though I live in Northeast Iowa where the region is divided between Packer and Viking fans, I’m just a guy from Florida who wanted to see a good game (and to watch a great comeback story as Peterson went for the record).

If I had a dog in the fight it had to do with the above photograph in my office. I took the photo back in 1985 when I was fresh out of film school and working for Yary Photography in Southern California.

The photo is of the 1985 LA Rams a year after Dickerson’s record season. The photo has extra meaning for me in that the following year I was working for a production company in Burbank as a 16mm cameraman & editor and one day got to go to Dickerson’s Calabasas, California home for a shoot and took the 16″X20″ print and had him sign it. Just two days ago I took that framed Rams photo off my office wall as I am preparing to move back to Florida next month.

While I plan to keep a presence  and clients in Iowa (in fact I have projects lined up here through April), I will be based back in Central Florida where I’ve lived the majority of my life.  (And, yes, the blog will still be Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places.)

When I came to Cedar Falls in the summer of 2003 it was supposed to be for three months. It’s been a heck of journey that I never would have guessed would last almost ten years.

Tonight I’ll give a toast to not only a Happy New Year, but one for the past decade in Iowa. At least, I won’t be leaving town empty-handed.


P.S. In that Rams team photo is Chuck Scott on the second row from the bottom on the far right . He was a rookie in ’85 and a second round draft pick out of Vanderbilt. My claim to football fame is I played high school football with Chuck at Lake Howell in Florida. He was a year behind me and a second team all-conference wide receiver and I was first team wide receiver. “All glory is fleeting,”*right? A lesson learned on the football field as well as the battlefield. And no stranger to Hollywood (i.e. The Artist) as well. BTW—Brandon Marshall who now plays for the Chicago Bears, and actor Scott Porter (Friday Night Lights) also played wide receiver at Lake Howell.

* “For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of triumph, a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeteers, musicians and strange animals from conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children robed in white stood with him in the chariot or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”
Gen. George C. Patton

Scott W. Smith



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“He lost. He’s alone. And he’s three million light years from home.”
Trailer for E.T., The Extra Terrestrial

“In the beginning, E.T. was never going to be the story of a little lost alien. Instead, I had intended to tell the story of the effects of a divorce on a young boy, a purging of all the pain children suffer and them must endure when a seismic event divides a family. I had been pondering this ever since I became a director, but it wasn’t until I was actually shooting the final scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that a new idea seized me, one that could be blended with my personal story of divorce.”
Steven Spielberg
Introduction to E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, From Concept to Classic, 30th Anniversary Edition

In my last post, Tootsie at 30, I mentioned that Tootsie was number one at the box office the week it came out in December of 1982. The weekend Toostie was release, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial came in at number 7 at the box office. That may seem surprising. But as they say, “a number without a reference is meaningless.”

I doubt E.T.’s director Steven Spielberg was disappointed by being beaten out by Tootsie, or even Airplane II: The Sequel (which came in at #6), because E.T. was released way back on June 11, 1982. Spielberg says in the book E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, From Concept to Classic, “Never in my wildest, wishful thinking did I imagine that our film would reach beyond a handful of family and friends.” So the fact that E.T. was still in theaters—and in the top ten moneymakers—six months after its release is pretty amazing.

The movie went on to have a worldwide gross of just under $800 million. And who knows how many more hundreds of millions in merchandising?


From a screenwriting perspective what you’ll like about the book on the making of E.T. is not only Melissa Mathison’s screenplay, but the rules of E.T.’s universe that were set in place in telling the story. Things like, “All adults in the movie are shot from the waist down, except for mom,” and “Everytime E.T. says a word he has to say it twice.”

“Melissa delivered this 107-page first draft to me and I read it in about an hour. I was just knocked out. It was a script I was willing to shoot the next day. It was so honest, and Melissa’s voice made a direct connection with my heart.”
Steven Spielberg

E.T. received nine Oscar-nominations, including Mathison for her screenplay, and won four (Best Visual Effects, Sound Effects Editing, Original Score, and Best Sound).

“I would write for four or five days in my little office in Hollywood, and then drive out to Marina Del Rey where Steven Spielberg was editing in a little apartment on the beach. I’d bring him my pages and we’d sit and go through them…It took about eight weeks for us to get the first draft, which was quite fast I think.”
Melissa Mathison
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, From Concept to Classic, 30th Anniversary Edition

Here’s a a 10 minute clip I found on The Making of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial where Speilberg comments about a scene that was cut from the finished film, “I think every scene needs to advance the story. And anytime a scene doesn’t advance the story, if it’s just fun for the sake of fun, it doesn’t really belong in the movie.”

Related posts:
E.T. & Emotional Autobiography
E.T., Mel & Easter
E.T. was from Youngstown (Kinda)
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter (Opposing views on personal storytelling)
Writing as Self-Exploration (Tip #67)
John Ford’s Advice to Spielberg
Filmmaking Quote #21 (Spielberg)

Scott W. Smith



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“Although the storyline of Tootsie was simple and straightforward enough, the script history of the film was anything but.”
Susan Dworkin
Making Toostie

Tootsie is the kind of Movie with a capital M that they used to make in the 1940s, when they weren’t afraid to mix up absurdity with seriousness, social comment with farce, and a little heartfelt tenderness right in there with the laughs.”
Roger Ebert

Thirty years ago this month Tootise was released into the world and finished number one in the box office Christmas weekend of December 17-19, 1982. It went on to be nominated for nine Oscars including Dustin Hoffman as lead actor, Sydney Pollack’s directing, and best picture. Jessica Lange won the Oscar for her supporting role.

And if you would have asked me before I read Making Tootsie written by Susan Dworkin who wrote the Tootsie screenplay I would have answered Larry Gelbart. But like most films there were a few hands in the pie. In fact, Toostie is another great example of the collaborative process of filmmaking really working well. The Tootise screenplay was also nominated for its screenplay, but along with Gelbart on the nomination were Murray Schisgal and Don McGuire. (But there were at least three more writers who had a hand in rewrites.)


Dworkin does an excellent job in her book of showing how the script and movie can together. The original seed for Tootsie was a screenplay titled Would I Lie to You? written by McGuire. McGuire was born in Chicago in 1919 and according to IMDB had come to Hollywood in the 40s and had a background a in journalism and worked as a press agent and an actor. In the 50s he started writing film scripts and his credits include Bad Day at Black Rock starring Spencer Tracy and Meet Danny Wilson starring Frank Sinatra. Many changes were made in his script Would I Lie to You? and he ended up with a story credit on Toostie—and it would be his last film credit.  He died in 1999.

McGuire’s script attracted the attention of Buddy Hackett in 1978 who took it to his friend Charles Evans. The rights to the script were owned by Henry Plitt and two other and Evans had to buy the property from them and even negotiate a different deal with McGuire. In 1979 Evans hired Bob Kaufman to do a rewrite of Would I Lie to You?

“I put Kaufman is a hotel room and  harassed him into writing and we cracked each other up.”
Tootsie producer Dick Richards

According to Dworkin, “Finally they had a new script. It was an out-of-work actor who gets a job playing a nurse on a soap opera.” Kaufman then departed the picture and the script landed in the hands of Dustin Hoffman, who was interested in playing a gender-switch role, and brought on playwright Murray Schisgal to rewrite the script. With Hoffman on board Evans was able to get a deal with Columbia and Hal Ashby was brought on to direct. Ashby would be replaced by director Sydney Pollack. And finally Larry Gilbart was brought on to do another rewrite of the script.

There will be a test on this later. According to IMDB Robert Garland, Barry Levinson, and Elaine May did uncredited work on the screenplay. And both Pollack and Hoffman also spent much time at Pollack’s beach house crafting the story. And that doesn’t even touch on what the other supporting actors (Terri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Bill Murray, Charles Durning, Lange and others) brought to their roles. I bet more than a dozon people could lay claim to at least some part of the script.

And the results? A film that made $177 million, is listed on the National Film Registry, and in 2000 was named by AFI as #2 funniest American film in the last 100 years. (Some Like it Hot was #1. Also, a gender-switch film.)

A fitting end to looking back at Toostie is to remember a key scene between Hoffman (as Dorothy) and Charles Durning (who just passed away a few days ago).

P.S. Speaking of Christmas 1982, I recently came across a picture of my studio apartment in Burbank when I was a film school student in 1982. Man, I was living large. (I don’t have that TV or the box it sits on, but I do still have that director’s chair.) Toostie still looks great after 30 years, but my that apartment at 1200 Riverside Dr. really got a major facelift in recent years. Probably more than a couple film & TV people living there. I always loved the location—just down the road from Disney Studios.


Scott W. Smith

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“We have everything we need right now to be completely happy. We’re going to blink and be ninety.”
Debbie (Leslie Mann)
This is 40

This is 40

“I do believe in the old saying ‘we write the movie to figure out why we are writing the movie.’ I started out as someone who wanted to write comedy. I never thought about comedy being an intimate, vulnerable act. Latley I have accepted that writing is a form of self-exploration. I am trying to sort through how I feel about this life while attempting to make it amusing on some level. When I wrote Funny People my mom had just died from ovarian cancer, and the purpose of life was something I was struggling with, so I had the need to write about it. I am not sure if it was a form of healing or denial, but I seemed to have no other option. Lately I have thought a lot about where I am as a forty-four-year-old man. I don’t know if it is a midlife crisis or a simple taking-stock, but I have definitely been thinking about how it is going.”
Judd Apatow
Q&A for This is 40 which Apatow wrote and directed
This is 40; The Shooting Script, published by Newmarket Press

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Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick  (Sweet Smell of Success) said of British drama critic and playwright William Archer, “To speak personally, Archer’s book on dramatic structure [Play-making]  is the best text I know on the subject of dramatic construction. Here’s an excerpt from that book first published in 1912:

“One thing is certain, and must be emphasised from the outset: namely, that if any part of the dramatist’s art can be taught, it is only a comparatively mechanical and formal part—the art of structure. One may learn how to tell a story in good dramatic form; how to develop and marshal it in such a way as best to seize and retain the interest of a theatrical audience. But no teaching or study can enable a man to choose or invent good story, and much less to do that which alone lends dignity to dramatic story-telling—to observe and portray human character.”
William Archer
Play-Making: A Manuel of Craftmanship

Mackendrick in his book On Film-making says of that passage, “I would rather say that it is possible to examine how certain dramatists have constructed material in a way that at certain times has seized the interest of an audience. If they have also succeeded in seizing and retaining your interest, you should take a closer look at just how they did this. Though drama cannot be taught as such, it can definitely be learned the way most skills are learned: by examination of others whose work you admire.”

Related Post:
Can Screenwriting Be Taught? 

Scott W. Smith

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“With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.”
—Silent Night


I took the above picture at sunrise today—Christmas morning. This is my ninth Christmas in this house originally built in 1919 in Cedar Falls, Iowa and it will be my last. May even be my last white Christmas for a while. I put a for sale sign in the yard Thanksgiving Day and got an dang acceptable offer less than two weeks later. (Kinda following Robert Redford’s “Return to Zero” lead.) The winds of change are coming and I’ll unpack that in January when I celebrate the fifth anniversary of this blog. But for now, Merry Christmas.

Joseph Mohr wrote the poem Silent Night in the remote Alpine village of Mariafarr where he was a Catholic priest back in 1816, and a couple of years later organist Franz Gruber put the poem to music and sang it at a midnight mass in Oberndof in 1818. It is said to be the most popular Christmas hymn of all time. There is a memorial chapel in Oberndof, Austria, about a half an hour from Salzburg. One of my most rewarding travel experiences was seeing a full solar eclipse in Salzburg in 1999, experiencing Silent Night performed in Oberndof on Christmas Eve would make a nice Austrian bookend experience.

But the song is once again proof that you can write something in a small village and it not only have a global impact—but it can do so for a couple hundred centuries.

Here’s a newly released version of Silent Night performed by Lady Antebellum from the album On This Winter’s Night.

Scott W. Smith

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“Always and consciously, I try to hook the audience in the first five minutes. I want them right from the start to feel something—BOOM! I want an explosion right at the beginning. I always what that.
Gene Wilder

So I’m getting in the Christmas spirit this year and thinking about giving away around 100 books I have on writing and film and video production to a local college. A purge of sorts. So today I was sifting through The Screenwriter’s Handbook written by Constance Nash and Virgina Oakey. It was published in 1978 and I imagine I picked it up in LA in the early 80s. Though it was one of the first books on writing I ever bought I don’t think I ever read the whole thing.

But this afternoon I did read an interview in the book with actor/writer/director Gene Wilder. Though best known as an actor (he won an Oscar-nomination for his role in The Producers) he actually also recieved an Oscar-nominated for writing Young Frankenstein with Mel Brooks. Less known about Wilder is he attended the University of Iowa—same as screenwriter Diablo Cody who was my inspiration behind starting this blog back in January 2008 after seeing Juno.

Here are a couple nuggets from his interview:

“I want to please the audience. I want to please the fat lady in Kansas City who sits on her porch swatting flies. I want to please my friends who laugh when I do something funny and who smile politely when it’s not so funny as I thought it was. I want to please them.”
Gene Wilder

“Truffaut said that he thought all directors fell into two categories, those who worked to satisfy themselves only and those who worked to satisfy the audience.”
Gene Wilder

“Sometimes I go for clichés in characters and use them for my own purposes, a tradition from silent comedies.”
Gene Wilder

“My advice to beginning screenwriters about contracts and sale agreements is: Get a good lawyer. Another piece of advice is: Watch out for producers.”
Gene Wilder

P.S. Wilder could also sing and dance…

Scott W. Smith

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“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy…”
The Shining (A Stephen King story)


Iowa is getting blanketed in a snow storm today. About ten inches of show has fallen in the last 12 hours with wind gusts measuring over 40 mph. I took the above photo this morning at my house and it reminded me of the scene in The Shining when Jack Nicholson has a form of writer’s block while writing at a prolific rate.

You really don’t need to go to film school to learn filmmaking—just study how this Stanley Kubrick directed scene is a tour de force of visual filmmaking—and simplicty. Two actors, two minutes, seven words, 10 shots (fewer setups) and just a great example of solid writing, acting, directing, cinematography, editing, location scouting, and sound design.

You could shoot this scene yourself with two friends and one camera in a couple hours. Do what the Renaissance painters did—copy the masters until you find your own style.

Related posts:

Stephen King’s Doublewide Trailer
Descriptive Writing (Stephen King)
Screenwriting Quote #55 (Stephen King)
Beatles, Cody, King and 10,000 Hours

Scott W. Smith

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 “You’d be hard pressed to remember dialogue in some of the great pictures that you’ve seen. That’s why pictures are so international. You don’t have to hear the dialogue in an Italian movie or a French movie. We’re watching the film so that the vehicle is not the ear or the word, it’s the eye. The director of a play is nailed to the words. He can interpret them a little differently, but he has his limits: you can only inflect a sentence in two or three different ways, but you can inflect an image on the screen in an infinite number of ways. You can make one character practically fall out of the frame; you can shoot it where you don’t even see his face. Two people can be talking, and the man talking cannot be seen, so the emphasis is on the reaction to the speech rather than on the speech itself.”
Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, The Crucible)
Playwrights at Work

Page 163

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Teenage Time Lock (Tip #66)

“Generally, the shorter the period of time depicted, the more intense the drama. The longer the period of time depicted on a film, the more chance there is that its narrative line will become episodic, making it difficult to keep the film flowing.”
Linda Seger
Advanced Screenwriting
Page 33

The great Milton Glaser once said, “Limitation stimulates the imagination.” Several years ago I wrote a post called Screenwriting & Time (Tip #17) and I reminded of that post when I flipped though an old book by Linda Seger today and saw the above quote highlighted. Long before I started this blog back in ’08 I had book after book full of yellow highlighted sections. This blog gave me a nice outlet to pass some of those on and add some new thoughts and quotes. And dang, here we are five years—and more than 1,400 posts—later. Time flies.

And, in general, the quicker the time flies in your screenplay the better off you’ll be. If you’re looking for a challenge in the next year, why not aim to write a story that takes place in a single day? You want more limitations to embrace? Okay, make it a story about teenagers in a single day. Here’s a short list of pretty good films that fall under those parameters:

American Graffiti
Ferris Buelller’s Day Off
Rebel Without a Cause
The Breakfast Club

Can you think of others?

Scott W. Smith

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