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Archive for January, 2013

“It always comes down to the script. Write a great one, you can be a zillion years old living in Antarctica and Hollywood will want you.”
Scott Myers
Go Into the Story

Scott & Scripts 1725

Thank you.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the blog Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, and I’d like to thank you for reading this blog. My original goals were modest; give it a year and see what happens. I kept writing and people kept reading. And the results are today’s post is number 1,447.  It’s definitely a “bird by bird” thing— to borrow Anne Lamott’s phrase (that she borrowed from her father).

And a special thanks to those readers who were there from the start in 2008. Back when it was common for me to write those 1,500-2,000 word posts. (I usually try to land between 250—500 words these days.) And special thanks to those who subscribe via email as they really make me consider whether something is worth posting or not.

The big surprise in 2012 was when I pulled a couple of quotes from the not-so-young writer/director Garry Marshall  (Pretty Woman, Happy Days) and the response was so positive that I kept pulling quotes from him for an entire month. That’s the first and only time that’s happened and that month of Garry Marshallwas the single most viewed month I’ve had in the five years of blogging. (Garry Marshall’s “Gentle Hilarity”  was posted on October 1, 2012 and the entire month was insights from him on writing and directing.)

Just to give you a glimpse of how organic and intuitive this blog is and the part you play as readers let me just say that last year when I was in the Dallas/Irving area to do a video shoot at Deion Sanders’ house, I stopped in a used bookstore and purchased Marshall’s book Wake Me When It’s Funny for a couple bucks and pulled a few quotes I though would be of interest to readers. I thought it might be a gamble because I knew a lot of readers of this blog weren’t even born when Marshall had some of his biggest Tv hits in the 70s. But good insights are good insights and I was just being conduit for those insights.

“It is true that I look for the Cinderella aspect when I am making a film. Most good stories are Cinderella. Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.”
Garry Marshall
Screenwriting Quote #171 (Garry Marshall)

In the past year I did notice that the quotes I was finding from screenwriters was starting to fall into categories I had already covered. Not really redundant, but I felt it reinforced and shaded in areas I had already covered in the pervious four years. Sometimes a newer writer will turn a new phrase on an old concept and  jazz it up a bit.

But after five years of blogging I finally want to hit my goal to condense these insights into a book. Really three books.  Sort of beginning, middle, and end. Each book will be approximately 60,000 words and really give a streamlined structure to what this blog is all about. My goal is to get these books into an ebook format by the end of June. (If that’s your field of expertise, I welcome any insights you have. You can always email me at info@scottwsmith.com)

I know there’s always a lot of talk about reading books only by produced feature screenwriters. But the truth is there just aren’t that many out there. And if the criteria is raised to having written a high quality award-winning screenplay that did great at the box office, I think you’re left with just one or two books.

In fact, I just read a book over the weekend over that was written by a produced and well-respected screenwriter of some wonderful films, but the book just did nothing for me. In fact, it’s the first book in my life that I’ve ever taken back to a book store and asked for my money back. (Thanks to Barnes & Noble for refunding my $28.44.)  If you’re going to sell a book for almost thirty bucks that promises to condense a thirty year career you really got to bring it. About 25 pages into the book I was waiting for the meat, by page 50 I realized it was running on fumes.

My point is not really to call out that screenwriting book I returned or the screenwriter who wrote it, just to say that it’s a myth that gifted and produced screenwriters make the best teachers, or that they can really explain what they do in a book. (Or that they can inspire you to do the same.)

“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Two-time Oscar-nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Lining Playbook, Winter’s Bone) on acting
The New York Times
article that mentions she’s never had an acting class or acting teacher

To paraphrase Tim Ferriss, despite Michael Phelps having won 18 Olympic gold medals in swimming—he may not be the best person to teach a 35-year-old how to swim.  (Especially true during the peak of Phelps’ career.) But just watching Phelps swim might inspire a 35-year-old to seek out a swimming teacher at their local rec center who despite falling short of Olympic glory has taught hundreds of people how to swim over the years.

Save your $28.44 and just read one of the most read posts on this blog Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2) where Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt unpacks the Pixar methods that’s produced hit after hit. I pulled insights off the Toy Story 3 DVD special features the week it was released. Then read one of my favorite all-time posts from last year called The Secret of Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) where the Oscar-nominated screenwriter John Logan (Hugo, Rango) discusses the secrets of his success in BAFTA interview. And a third post that’s proven popular is last year’s Dan Harmon’s Story Circle.—from the creator of the TV program Community.

But ultimately, what separates someone like Michael Arndt from the screenwriting pack is the same thing that separated Michael Phelps from the swimming pack—talent, drive, and determination. All I’m really doing on this blog is helping point the way—the hard part is up to you.

I have said it before and say it again, I’m a much more successful blogger than screenwriter. (As I joke with my production friends, “Did I ever tell you my blog won an Emmy?”) Though I’ve written nine (unproduced) screenplays and have written and directed nine produced short films (on top of producing well over 100 video projects), I think my unique skill is to aggregate the best insights from some of the most talented writers and filmmakers throughout film history, including the up and comers. (I should have learned something from all those books and screenplays I’ve read in the above photo.) Concepts and insights that I hope will inspire you in whatever unlikely place you live in the world.

At last count I have quoted and/or told the story of more than 400 writers and filmmakers over the last five years. The problem with the blog now is there are five years of posts—more than 650,000 words—with very little overall structure for someone who stumbles upon this blog today. It’s almost impossible to wade through 1,447 posts.  So phase two—which I’m about 90% done writing—is to whittle down the essentials of this blog—the greatest hits–into user-friendly and inspirational ebooks.

Wish me well with that process, and I wish you well in your writing.

And thanks again for checking out this blog, because without a growing readership there’s no way I would have had the energy or desire to keep this up for five years.

Related Post: Life Beyond Hollywood (the very first post on January 22, 2008)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“HOLLYWOOD is easy to hate, easy to sneer at, easy to lampoon.”
Raymond Chandler’s essay Writers in Hollywood published in the Atlantic in 1945

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that novelist/screenwriter Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity) was not in a happy place when he wrote the essay  Writers in Hollywood which was published in the Atlantic back in 1945.

“The making of a picture ought surely to be a rather fascinating adventure. It is not; it is an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion. Hollywood is a showman’s paradise. But showmen make nothing; they exploit what someone else has made.”
Raymond Chandler
Writers in Hollywood 

“The first picture I worked on was nominated for an Academy award (if that means anything), but I was not even invited to the press review held right in the studio. An extremely successful picture made by another studio from a story I wrote used verbatim lines out of the story in its promotional campaign, but my name was never mentioned once in any radio, magazine, billboard, or newspaper advertising that I saw or heard – and I saw and heard a great deal. This neglect is of no consequence to me personally; to any writer of books a Hollywood by-line is trivial.
Raymond Chandler
Writers in Hollywood

“Few screenwriters possess homes in Bel-Air, illuminated swimming pools, wives in full-length mink coats, three servants, and that air of tired genius gone a little sour. Money buys pathetically little in Hollywood beyond the pleasure of living in an unreal world, associating with a narrow group of people who think, talk, and drink nothing but pictures, most of them bad, and the doubtful pleasure of watching famous actors and actresses guzzle in some of the rudest restaurants in the world. I do not mean that Hollywood society is any duller or more dissipated than moneyed society anywhere: God knows it couldn’t be. But it is a pretty thin reward for a lifetime devoted to the essential craft of what might be a great art.”
Raymond Chandler
Writers in Hollywood

But that essay was written over 65 years ago, and he was talking about a Hollywood studio system of the 30s & 40s. One we ironically look back on as the golden era of Hollywood—the era before TV muddied the waters. Time and time again you hear 1939 named as the best year ever in the history of motion pictures: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz. (And 1941 wasn’t too bad either: Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Meet John Doe, Suspicion, Sergeant York, How Green Was My Valley, Sullivan’s Travels.)

Every era produces its share of bad people and bad movies, but given a little time all of that is forgotten and we remember mostly the great movies—and the great filmmakers who made those movies. My guess is back in 1945 Chandler was too close to the egos—the sauguage making—to step back and see that some great movies were made.

When I first saw Double Indemnity 40 years after it was made I knew nothing of Raymond Chandler (screenwriter), Billy Wilder (screenwriter/director), or James M. Cain (who wrote the novel).  I was unaware of the tension Chandler and Wilder had in writing the script—I just knew it was a great film.  (I did know Fred MacMurray from the TV show My Three Sons, so it did take some effort seeing him as the bad guy.)

It would be interesting to see what Raymond Chandler would write today about Hollywood, independent filmmaking, global cinema, and even television. But he did end his 1945 essay with a little hope:

“In spite of all I have said, the writers of Hollywood are winning their battle for prestige. More and more of them are becoming showmen in their own right, producers and directors of their own screenplays. Let us be glad for their additional importance and power, and not examine the artistic result too critically. The boys make good (and some of them might even make good pictures). Let us rejoice together, for the tendency to become showmen is well in the acceptable tradition of the literary art as practiced among the cameras.
Raymond Chandler
Writers in Hollywood

Chandler would have liked Joe Eszterhas a lot.  And I imagine if Chandler were alive to watch the 2008 Academy Awards he would have smiled when screenwriter/”showman” Diablo Cody won her Oscar for Juno and simply said, “You go girl.” And I think he’d be proud—and amazed— of the modern filmmakers that produced Winter’s Bone, The Artist, and Life of Pi.

To paraphrase what David Mamet said of theater, “Cinema is always dying, and always being reborn.”

Related post: The Original Screenwriting Rock Star

And since it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day— Martin Luther King Jr Special

Scott W. Smith

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“Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”
Sydney Greenstreet’s character in The Maltese Falcon
Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett 

“Hammett  made the detective story fun to write, not an exhausting concatenation of insignificant clues.”
Raymond Chandler

Just as Raymond Chandler influenced other writers, other writers influenced him.  And one of those writers was Dashiell Hammett (1884-1961)  who The New York Times called ‘the dean of the hard-boiled school of detective fiction.” It’s interesting to note that Hammett was born before—and lived longer—than Chandler. But as I noted in a pervious post, Chandler was late bloomer and didn’t begin writing until he was into his 40s. Hammett was raised Catholic on a farm in southern Maryland and served in the US Army before writing the novels he is known for: The Thin Man, Red Harvest, The Glass Key, and The Maltese Falcon.

He once said, “All my characters were based on people I’ve known personally, or known about.” What follows is an excerpt from an essay by Chandler that was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944:

“I doubt that Hammett had any deliberate artistic aims whatever; he was trying to make a living by writing something he had first hand information about. He made some of it up; all writers do; but it had a basis in fact; it was made up out of real things. The only reality the English detection writers knew was the conversational accent of Surbiton and Bognor Regis. If they wrote about dukes and Venetian vases, they knew no more about them out of their own experience than the well-heeled Hollywood character knows about the French Modernists that hang in his Bel-Air château or the semi-antique Chippendale-cum-cobbler’s bench that he uses for a coffee table. Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley; it doesn’t have to stay there forever, but it was a good idea to begin by getting as far as possible from Emily Post’s idea of how a well-bred debutante gnaws a chicken wing. He wrote at first (and almost to the end) for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there. Violence did not dismay them; it was right down their street.

Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish. He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. It was, in a sense, but it was much more. All language begins with speech, and the speech of common men at that, but when it develops to the point of becoming a literary medium it only looks like speech. Hammett’s style at its worst was almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean; at its best it could say almost anything. I believe this style, which does not belong to Hammett or to anybody, but is the American language (and not even exclusively that any more), can say things he did not know how to say or feel the need of saying. In his hands it had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill. He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man’s devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.”
Raymond Chandler
The Simple Art of Murder

 P.S. Hammett had one of those complicated lives that artists often live. He consumed mass quantities of alcohol and cigarettes and had other health issues. He got married, had kids, got divorced, and fit in a 30-year affair with playwright Lillian Hellman, joined the communist party in 1937, lived his later years as a hermit with his typewriter untouched, and died of lung cancer. He’s buried in Arlington National Cemetery. He did work for a time as a screenwriter and many of his stories and characters were turned into movies and TV programs.

Scott W. Smith

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“I had no notion of becoming a writer,” is how writer Walter Mosley describes his life before reading the following two sentences:

“He was looking at me and neither his eyes nor his gun moved. He was as calm as an adobe wall in the moonlight.”
The Long Goodbye, written by Raymond Chandler

“It took Raymond Chandler to show me something that I already knew but had never been aware of. Adobe walls in the lunar light of the southern California desert had the most passive demeanor—they were the ideal of peacefulness. Then the writer contrasts this nearly absolute tranquility to an armed and dangerous man … For the first time I understood the power of language to reach beyond the real into the metaphysical and into metaphor. Those 24 words alerted me to the potential power of writing.”
Author Walter Mosely who’s published 34 books and won the O Henry award, a Grammy, and PEN Lifetime Achievement Award
The Two Raymond Chandler Sentences That Changes Walter Mosley’s Life written by Joe Fassler in the Atlantic

“Everyone knows who Raymond Chandler is and I began reading him in the late ’40s when I was writing westerns. And I remember thinking, ‘why don’t I switch over to things like the kinds of stories that Raymond Chandler’s doing?’”
Author Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty)
On receiving the Raymond Chandler Award

“He wrote like a slumming angel and invested in the sun-blinded streets of Los Angeles with a gusto and imaginative flair.”
Reference about Raymond Chandler by crime fiction author Ross Macdonald who created detective Lew Archer (The Moving Target)

“What [Quentin] Tarantino may be most renowned for is his focus on highly stylized modes of speech. Greatly influenced by the likes of film noir/pulp fiction writers Dashiell Hammond, Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, Tarantino elicits vivid responses from his audiences by incorporating mundane banter about ubiquitous popular culture subject matters.”
Michael Peters
An Analysis of Quentin Tarantino and His Films

“Your clothes should be jazzy, very jazzy indeed, Steve. To be inconspicuous in this town is to be a busted flush.”
Raymond Chandler, The King in Yellow 
A short story by Chandler, and worth noting because the name author John D. MacDonald called the famed houseboat in 21 Travis McGee private detective novels was The Busted Flush. (Though the character McGee won the boat in a poker game, some consider it a nod to Chandler by the writer MacDonald.)

And here’s a different kind of Chandler influence from the trailer for Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) written and directed by Carl Reiner and starring Steve Martin:

That’s just what I could come up with in a breif search online. Do you know of other writers who were influenced by Chandler?

Scott W. Smith

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“Raymond Chandler invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.”
Paul Auster

If we rewind to 1928 and look at a 40-year-old Raymond Chandler, we do not see any proof that he is (or even is becoming) the writer Raymond Chandler. That is the writer of not only seven novels including Farewell, My Love , and the screenplays that would be directed by Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity) and Alfred Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train). No evidence that Humphry Bogart would so eloquently speak the words of Chandler’s best known character  Philip Marlowe on film, or that he would be nominated for two Academy Awards.

And if you met Raymond Chandler a year or so after the Great Depression when he was unemployed and drinking too much and he told you that he was going to be a writer, your response would have been something like, “Well, good luck with that.” And as you slithered away before he asked you to read something he wrote you’d be thinking to yourself, “Another delusion writer.”

Raymond Chandler in his early 40s was a walking cliché. Though he’d dabbled in poetry and journalism when he was younger, at the age of 44 he was a recently fired oil executive who decided instead of looking for a job  to become a writer.

What are the odds against him getting published, much less becoming the writer Raymond Chandler? Tremendous. But, hey, writers write.

“With a $100 a month stipend from his friends Edward and Paul Lloyd he began working on a short story for the pulp magazine Black Mask. The story was entitled ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’ and appeared in the December 1933 issue. It took him five months to write and he was paid $180. After that, he said, he ‘never looked back,’ but he wrote slowly and made very little money from his stories.”
Chris Routledge
Raymond Chandler on Writing  

And he kept at it and kept publishing short stories until 1939—at the age of 51— his first novel, The Big Sleep was published. It introduced the detective Philip Marloww to the world, was widely read, became a movie in 1946 (with William Faulkner as one of the screenwriters), and in 2005 the novel made Time magazine’s list of  100 ALL-TIME 100 Novels (published between 1923 and 2005).

All that to say that Chandler was a highly unlikely—and successful— late bloomer.

Scott W. Smith

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“Ian Fleming was massively influenced by [Raymond] Chandler. So someone like Bond is a reflection of Marlowe because he’s dry, he’s ironic, he’s the drinker, he’s the lone wolf. These characters are still with us, they still live on. And they are so totemic in their style that they will never ever age.”
Actor Toby Stephens

Back in 2011 the BBC dramatized many of Chandler’s novels including The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and Playback with Toby Stephens playing Marlowe in a series they called Classic Chandler. (You can purchase that series on iTunes.) It’s interesting to point out that the character Philip Marlowe first appear in print back in 1939 in Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep, and James Bond first appeared in print in 1953 in Flemming’s Casino Royale.

And here’s a short clip where James Bond author Ian Fleming says he “simply stole” the name James Bond. (A great example of what I wrote about in the post Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C).

Related post: Raymond Chandler Interview (by Ian Flemming)

Scott W. Smith

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“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”
Private detective Philip Marlowe
Farewell, My Lovely written by Raymond Chandler

There’s no question that as a writer Raymond Chandler had a voice, but until this weekend I had never heard Raymond Chandler’s actual voice. I stumbled upon an interview with Chandler by writer Ian Fleming on You Tube. How about that? The creator of Phillip Marlowe being interviewed by the creator of James Bond.

Flemming: I find it extremely difficult to write about villains. Villains I find extremely difficult to put my finger on…The really good solid villain is a very difficult person to build up, I think.
Chandler: I don’t think I ever in my own mind think anybody’s a villain.

The interview was recorded in 1958—a year before Chandler died. There is a PDF of the interview which includes some interesting comments by Chandler on how killings are arranged in New York, and how he was the first to write realistically about Los Angeles.

Related Post: Screenwriting Quote #158 (William M. Akers) —“Your bad guy must always be taking action…”

Scott W. Smith

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