Archive for February, 2013

The Ideal Film School?

“I have more complicated feelings about film school in general. I can’t speak for every film school, and obviously USC is a great program and one of the best, but it’s tough to take whatever nugget you have that makes you want to be a writer or filmmaker and try to sort of give it grades and structure into a program.  You know the ideal film school would be like a community of people, peers who are just reading each other’s stuff, and maybe some of them are older and have had some experience like those four or five great professors I had.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter (Argo) and USC grad Chris Terrio
Dp/3o Interview with David Poland

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“I knew that I wanted to make movies but I kinda didn’t know what you do.”
Chris Terrio (Talking about after graduating from college)

Screenwriter Chris Terrio is now Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio. His script for Argo was not only a winner for him but the movie also took home the Oscar for best film.

His career  path took a few years—heck, even his Argo script which everyone loved took five years to get made. But the path Terrio took is also a familiar one; born in New York City, private Catholic schools, undergraduate work at Harvard, a year graduate study in England, MFA at USC,  Sundance, Oscar-winner. But those impressive credentials gloss over the lean years and the dedication to writing of the now relatively wealthy and well-known 36-year-old screenwriter.

“When you’re not in the [WGA] you’re just grateful for anything that’ll you give you a month of rent or a couple months of rent. My first couple of jobs were New York independent things. And for really smart interesting producers trying to do smart interesting things. But of course there wasn’t a lot of money for an untested writer. So if somebody had read some things you’d written, or a play you’d written, or a script you’d written on spec then sometimes you’d get paid 5,000 bucks, if you’re lucky, on a good day maybe 10,000 bucks. Or just here’s lunch if you’ll let me be the guy to take your screenplay around, and you’re grateful for that. One of the things I’m not sure you’re always prepared for is the  loneliness of it. You really have to get to a mental place where every single day you can be prepared to be alone for long periods of time.
Chris Terrio
December 2012 interview with David Poland on The DP/30 Channel

P.S. For what it’s worth, the Harvard and USC education costs about $400,000. in today’s dollars. The Catholic schools Terrio attended in Staten Island are probably worth another $50,000—100,000. It’s often hard to pay back any college loan, much less when you’re making $5,000 or $10,000 on an occasional script sale. (In fact, on the above interview Terrio says he got himself into “crippling, crippling debt which I literally paid off two months ago.”) Nobody’s sugar-coating things here. A friend of my is producing a documentary called Broken, Busted, & Disgusted about the true cost of a college education. On their website they say 2/3 of college graduates have loan debts, averaging $25,000. It’s an important topic that I’ll write more about more in detail later. You can also learn more about the film on their Facebook page.

Related post:

How Much Do Screenwriters Make? (Odds are before the six or seven-figure check arrives, the five-figure check will come.)
How to Be a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #42)
Beatles, Cody, King, and 10,000 Hours

Scott W. Smith

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Really Good Writing & Acting

You can put this one in the “We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught” file:

It’s a little cliché, but I’ve learned that you can’t make a movie that even works, much less that’s good, without really good writing and really good acting.  That lesson has led me to not be distracted, so much, by the other stuff going on in filmmaking and to focus on the essence of a story, and the words and the events and the way that those are interpreted by the actors.  That philosophy has taken me to a place that I really like.”
Two-time Oscar-winner Ben Affleck (Argo, Good Will Hunting)
Collier.com interview with Christina Radish

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“I was nobody auditioning, and then I was seen as this young, emerging talent, writer, Oscar winner (Good Will Hunting screenplay) — and then I was seen as this blockbuster actor, and then I was seen as this kind of train-wreck actor (RAZZIE Award winner, Worst ActorDaredevil. Gigli, Paycheck) and then I was seen as this resurgent director. And now I think I’m kind of seen as just sort of somebody in Hollywood who works.”
Ben Affleck
A Snub by Oscars? Affleck Has an Answer by Melena Ryzik
NY Times January 16,2113

“I had no idea what I was doing. I stood out here. I was just a kid, and I never thought I’d be back here, and I am…What I learned was it doesn’t matter if you get knocked down in life, what matters is that you’ve got to get back up.”
Ben Affleck, producer/director/actor (Argo)
Best Picture (Argo), 2013 Oscar Acceptance Speech

Related posts:

Writing “Good Will Hunting”
Project Greenlight 2 (Part 1)
“Against the Wind”
Screenwriting Quote #141 (Melissa Rosenberg)
Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns)
Broken Wings & Silver Linings

Scott W. Smith

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Creating ‘I Dream of Jeannie’

I decided to round out the week with another Sidney Sheldon quote. Along with his best-selling novels, his Tony award, and his Oscar award, he was also the producer and creator of I Dream Of Jeannie. While it may not be the pinnacle of TV production, it’s still is a fan favorite more than forty years after the show’s five-year run ended. But more importantly, the reason I chose to end on this program is the setting for the show was the area I just moved to—Florida’s Space Coast.

While most of the production took place in California, Sheldon visited the area and sometimes they shot in the Cocoa Beach/Cape Kennedy where the Larry Hagman character lived and worked. In fact, there is a remnant of the show just a few miles up state road A1A from where I live. In Cocoa Beach there’s a short road named  I Dream of Jeanie Lane. Actually, not far from the Kelly Slater statue I wrote about last summer.

Notice in the video above of the show’s first episode that it only took Sheldon a couple of minutes to set up the show. In 1967, Sheldon did receive an Emmy-nomination for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy.

“To create comedy you have to have a conflict. If he’d played the part of a salesman who’d found a Jeannie there’s no conflict, it’s not funny. But to have the master as someone who’s in the military and has to subscribe to certain rules, and can’t be seen as doing anything outrageous without being thrown out of the service—that becomes funny. So I made him a member of NASA. They’re very strict. And we shot some of the scenes, some of the backgrounds in Cocoa Beach. The astronauts were big fans of the show—some of them came to the wedding in the fifth year…I had so many credits—it was created by Sidney Sheldon, a Sidney Sheldon production, copyrighted by Sidney Sheldon, written by Sidney Sheldon, I was embassesment—usually in Hollywood you fight for credit, I was fighting to get some of my credits off the screen.”
Sidney Sheldon
Archive of American Television

P.S. Am I only one who thinks a young Larry Hagman looks like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady?

Scott W. Smith

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“In 1967, during the second season of [I Dream ofJeannie, I was nominated for an Emmy. At the awards ceremony, I met Charles Schulz, who was also nominated for writing Charlie Brown. I was a big fan of his and his friend, Charlie Brown. Charles and I started talking, and he turned out to be a warm and wonderful pixie. He said that he was a fan of Jeannie.

I mentioned to Charles that I had a favorite Peanuts cartoon, where Snoopy is at his typewriter, typing: His was a story that had to be told. There is a panel of Snoopy vainly thinking. Then he types, Well, maybe not, and throws the paper away.

Shortly after the Emmys, a package arrived from Charles. It was the original strip, signed to me. I still have it hanging in my office. Incidentally, neither of us won that year.”
Writer Sidney Sheldon (1917-2007)
The Other Side of Me

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“I got a job as a reader at $17 a week. I would get up at 4 o’clock every morning and work on original stories. I started selling them, and I became established as a screenwriter…Any talent is a gift, I think we’re obligated to work as hard as we can at whatever talent we’re lucky enough to have been given, whether it’s writing or music or painting. We should just be grateful.”
Screenwriter, playwright, novelist Sidney Sheldon (The Other Side of Midnight)
CNN Entertainment/Sidney Sheldon’s guid to success

Just trying to give the late Sidney Sheldon a little page time to counter my post (Hollywood Hacks & Shipwrecks) about a writer teacher I had who called Sheldon a hack. I don’t think he was a hack, but even if he was, he was one hard-working hack. Kept writing everyday into his 80s. Plus he was an Emmy-nominated, Oscar and Tony-winning, and #1 best-selling writer. If Sheldon in fact had limited writing skills he should be applauded, admired and studied. Because few writers in the history of the world had the critical, popular, and financial success—across film, TV and literature— that Sheldon experienced.

Related post:
The Screenwriter’s Breakfast Club
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic
Stephen J. Cannel’s Work Ethic

P.S. If 4AM is not early enough for you check out the Justin W. Hedges blog The 3 a.m. Screenwriter. ( A blog that just happened to be inspired by the post The Screenwriter’s Breakfast Club.)

Scott W. Smith

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“When I was about 30, I had three shows running on Broadway. And that made me happy.”
Sidney Sheldon

“I won an Oscar, for The Bachelor And The Bobby-Soxer. And that was one of the worst nights of my life. I should have been exhilarated and I was depressed. And I thought, you know, this is, there’s something wrong. I’m not happy. And I went to a psychiatrist and he said, ‘You have bipolar disorder. You’re a manic-depressive.’ And that’s when I first learned about it. But meanwhile I’d done a lot of bad things. I’d walked out on a lot of successes that I could have had. And I finally knew what was wrong…It goes back to where I was born, and, it starts with me wanting to commit suicide. I was very unhappy. I was very depressed because I felt there was nothing more in life for me than I was doing, working at the drugstore as a delivery boy, and hanging hats and coats. Many years later, I found out that I had bipolar disorder. And that’s something that very often leads to suicide.”
Screenwriter, playwright, novelist Sidney Sheldon
CBS News Sidney Sheldon Shares Secrets

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“When did you last see a movie that engaged your mind a week or a month later?…When crap drives out class, our taste grow coarser and the life of the imagination grows smaller.”
Stephen King
What’s Next For Pop Culture?

Recently I looked at what movies were playing at a four-plex theater by my house and couldn’t help but notice (thanks to the app I was using) something they all had in common—very low Rotten Tomatoes scores (28%, 24%, 16%, 12%). Doesn’t really matter what films they were, they were just typical Hollywood movies. Go back a few years, or look forward in a few years and there’s a good chance you see a repeated pattern. The big question is why haven’t Hollywood movies evolved?

Here’s a barrage of soundbite reviews of those movies at the four-plex:

“The comedy equivalent of mud-wrestling without the mud.”
“Uninspired trudge.”
“Unfunny, predictable, and vulgar.”
“Filled with the sentimental schmaltz.”
“Hallmark romance that ranges from the dull to the ridiculous.”
“Forget dialogue, character development, or logic.”

So why did those films get made? Why did they get made in the past? And why will they get made in the future?

The easy to answer—money.

Movie 24% and movie 16% both spent at least one week #1 at the box office and movie 12% was written by one of the most financially successful writers in history. (My wife did go to movie 12% but left before the movie was over when it got “too cheesy.” But Hollywood got the ticket sale.)

Hollywood is in the money-making business. And it’s trying to make movies that people want to see, so they can make a profit. Business 101. It’s the same reason all those trite reality TV shows that people complain about are on the air.

This all reminds me of a writing class I had in L.A. back in the ’80s taught by a playwright/screenwriter who told us that Sidney Sheldon (1917-2007) was not a good writer—but that Sheldon was a rich and famous writer. He went on to make his case against Sheldon known for his many novels, Broadway plays, movies, and for creating the TV shows Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie.  The teacher concluded his talk saying that though he considered Sidney Sheldon a hack he wished he could write like Sidney Sheldon.

I’m not an expert on Sheldon, though I confess to enjoying both Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie as a kid. (I don’t remember any storylines, but I remember Stefanie Powers and Barbera Eden well.) But I don’t think Sheldon was a hack. A hack to me doesn’t really care what he writes. I don’t remember the teacher’s name either, but that class was a memorable moment that’s stuck with me.

Looking at the work of other writers and filmmakers is often a mix of subjectivity, objectivity, education, temperament, envy and jealousy. I always think it’s best to judge any artist by their best work. And to be fair, Sheldon did win an Academy Award for writing The Bachelor and the Bobby-Sock (1947), won a Tony, received a nomination for an Emmy, was a New York Times best-selling author, and is listed as the seventh best-selling fiction author of all time—ahead of even J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss.

But it is surprising why Hollywood films as a whole aren’t better. All of the other crafts related to filmmaking have overall arguably evolved significantly. (Cinematography, editing, special effects, sound effects, acting, set design, etc.,etc.) The reason some say those crafts are better is technology has improved and they had a great tradition to build on. But the types of movies that get made don’t really seem to improve. Certainly screenwriters also have opportunities to build (not just try to duplicate) on a body of work that went before them.

Who do we blame? Screenwriters? Audiences? Studios?

“The logic behind the Hollywood development process for a motion picture goes something like this: no matter where you are making movies in the world , if you are producing a product for a mass audience, the various funnels through which your story (the entertainment you are creating) must pass will narrow in order to appeal to the most people waiting on the other side. Typically, mass audiences reduce characters to white hat/good guy and black hat/bad guy. Consequently they like the familiarity and comfort of a twice told tale…The trick for the Hollywood writer is to create a script that is intensely personal, yet still manages to resonate with a mass audience by virtue of its universal theme.”
Michael Lent
Breakfast with Sharks
Page 4

The good news if you want to—and have the desire, skill, and opportunity— to write those poorly reviewed films that pull in a big mass audiences—you can make a lot of money. (Like all that money spent at fast food restaurants and Thomas Kinkade paintings, maybe not the most nourishing things but someone’s making money.)  These days writers who aim a little higher tend to find refuge in independent films or cable TV. Or you can turn to teaching where you can breakdown why the Sidney Sheldon of the day is a hack and where one professor at a well-known film school reportedly said, “I prepare students for unemployment.”

To really end this post on a positive note.;What about those handful of great Hollywood films made every year? Perhaps Frank Darabont explained it best when he said Hollywood is like a big shipwreck, and while most of the ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean, every once in a while a couple of pieces of wood made it to shore.

And 2012 was actually a pretty solid year, wasn’t it? Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Silver Linings Playbook are just three well-done Oscar-nominated films that crowd the top of the Hollywood pyramid. In every level of production there is a pyramid. The best thing you can do wherever you are on the pyramid is to focus on what you do best and hope your work can find an audience. First with a small audience of investors (a studio, an investment group,  kickstarter) and then with a larger audience that brings a return on investment (ROI).

But if you can do that with a little heart and soul, there’s a few of us that would appreciate it.

P.S. Sidney Sheldon was raised in Chicago during the depression and attended Northwestern so I’ll see if I can find some interviews so he can get some stage time to defend himself. But since he was raised during the depression I imagine he may just say, “I wasn’t trying to be Shakespeare or Hemingway— just looking for a way to feed my family and pay some bills.”

Scott W. Smith

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“You’ve got to remember that the story is much more about the audience than it is about the characters or the plot. And it is much more about the audience than it is about the storyteller. “
Agent Julian Friedmann

“Aristotle described the formula. He did that two and a half thousand years ago. Not only did it work then, it still works today. So actually anyone who says there is no formula is wrong, there is. Aristotle did it in a way that makes it incredibly easy to remember. There’s three words – pity, fear and catharsis. He said you need to make the audience feel pity for a character. You do that usually by making the character go through some undeserved misfortune. What that does – it enables the audience to emotionally connect with the character. And once the writer has got that emotional connection between the audience and the character, the writer begins to have some control over the audience. You then put the character into a worse and worse and worse situation. And because of the emotional connection, the identification, the audience feels fear. When you release the character from the jeopardy or whatever the situation they’re in, the audience experiences a catharsis. Pity, fear, catharsis.”
Agent Julian Friedmann / @julianfriedmann
The Mystery of Storytelling

H/T to Daniel Martin Eckhart’s blog where I stumbled upon Friedmann’s TEDx Talk. You can find the entire transcript of Friedmann’s talk at Write, write, write.

Material referenced: Pity, Fear, and Catharsis in Aristotle’s Poetics by Charles B. Daniels and Sam Scully

Free PDF of Aristotle’s Poetics

Related Post:
40 Days of Emotion
Pity, Fear, and Catharsis and stories being about audiences all point back to the importance of emotion in storytelling. Perhaps the biggest mistake in screenwriting circles in the last 30 years has been putting “Structure, Structure, Structure” at the top of the story pyramid. Richard Walter goes as far as saying the emphasis on structure is one of the reasons there are so many ‘soulless” scripts out there.

Scott W. Smith

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