Archive for February, 2013

“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

Read Full Post »

“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

Read Full Post »

“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

Read Full Post »

“I found myself seeking shelter against the wind.”
Bob Seger/Against the Wind

“Run, Forrest! Run!
Jenny in Forrest Gump

Many of you weren’t even born when Bob Seger’s album Against the Wind was released in February of 1980. Some of you have never heard the title song on the album. And since this blog has a global audience, there are others who have never even heard of Bob Seger—or his Silver Bullett Band. But I don’t think there’s been a human being anywhere in the world, anytime in the history of mankind, whose heart would not resonate —to one degree or another—with the core experience of running against the wind.

If Adam and Eve heard this song—once they were banished east of Eden—they’d have been just as moved as I was when I first heard it as a high school senior the year it was released. And every decade of my life this song has taken on new meaning. And if I make it to age 80 in a retirement home, I’ll be the one in the corner listening to this song cranked up in my ear buds on my retro iPhone 14  (just like I did with those jumbo Koss headphones at age 18) and I’ll still be seeking—probably more than ever— shelter against the wind.

The kid in the inner city Chicago, the businessman in Singapore, the factory worker in China, the mother in the favilla in Rio, the president of Pakistan, the actress in Hollywood, the computer programmer in India, and the farmer in Iowa—all know what it’s like to run against the wind. It’s a universal and primal.

In fact that screenplay you’re currently writing should have a protagonist who’s running against the wind. Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne, Erin Brockovich, Luke Skywalker, Ellen Ripley, Rocky, Superman, Batman, Bambi, Nemo, Dorothy, and more recently Django all spend a lot of movie time running against the wind. No conflict, no drama.

And since this blog celebrates storytelling and regionalism, this song and Seger’s Michigan roots (Lincoln Park, Ann Arbor, Detroit) fit right in. Seger spent fifteen years on the Midwest club circuit—with limited national success—before hitting it big nationally in 1976 with the song and album Night Moves. Seger is a study in persistence. And here we are fifty years after he first hit the Detroit music scene and he’s getting ready to tour again this month performing in many of the Midwest cities where he honed his act in the early years; Toledo, Grand Rapids, Dayton, Green Bay, St. Paul, Fargo, and of course, Detroit.


I saw Seger in concert the summer of ’78 at what’s now The Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida. Few things were as magical and captivating in my teenage years as sitting in the dark with around 60,000 other people watching the flickering glow of lighters throughout the outdoor stadium and listening to the raspy voice of Seger.

Happy Valentine’s Day—in a melancholy sort of way.

Against the Wind
Bob Seger

Seems like yesterday
But it was long ago
Janey was lovely she was the queen of my nights
There in darkness with the radio playin low
And the secrets that we shared, mountains that we moved
Caught like a wildfire out of control
Til there was nothin left to burn and nothin left to prove
And I remember what she said to me
How she swore that it never would end
I remember how she held me oh so tight
Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then
Against the wind
We were runnin against the wind
We were young and strong we were runnin
Against the wind
And the years rolled slowly past
And I found myself alone
Surrounded by strangers I thought were my friends
Found myself further and further from my home and I
Guess I lost my way
There were oh so many roads
I was livin to run and runnin to live
Never worried about payin or even how much I owe
Movin’ eight miles a minute and for months at a time
Breakin all of the rules that would bend
I began to find myself searchin
Searchin for shelter again and again
Against the wind
Little somethin against the wind
I found myself seekin shelter against the wind
Well those drifting days are past me now
I’ve got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out
Against the wind
I’m still runnin against the wind
I’m older now but still runnin against the wind
Well I’m older now but still runnin against the wind
Against the wind
Against the wind
Still runnin
Against the wind
Against the wind
Against the wind…
P.S. Against the Wind did appeared in the movies For Love of the Game and Forrest Gump. Other Seger songs have been featured in movies over the years, but one of the most iconic scenes in modern American films is when Tom Cruise slides across the floor in Risky Business and dances to Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll.
P.P.S. Against the Wind is Seger’s only number one album on the Billboard 2oo charts, and knocked Pink Floyd’s The Wall album out of the top slot after it topped the charts for 15 weeks.

Read Full Post »

“A screenwriter friend of mine said your number one goal is to get to the end. So write it fast; don’t look back. If you have to have characters yak about something and you don’t have a solution, do it anyway and let it suck. Then go back over it in a couple of weeks, and you’ll be much clearer on what’s strong and what’s not strong and then attack the ones that are too verbose. At least you’ll have a laundry list of things the audience needs to know—but don’t hang up on finding the visual solution and not move forward on your screenplay.”
Oscar-winning writer/director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille)
Interview with Peter N. Chumo II
creative screenwriting magazine, Novemeber/December 2004

—Write it fast
—Don’t look back
—Let it suck
—Move forward

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“I was working on The Simpsons as a consultant, and I was trying to get movie ideas off the ground. I could always get on the runway—I could always get a project backed, and I could develop it—but I was never getting cleared for takeoff. And I wasn’t getting cleared for really dull reasons—because my guy would get fired and then the new guy wouldn’t want anything that the old guy had, or some other movie was vaguely related would tank at the box office, so they’d say, ‘Naturally, yours will fail too.’ So I was frustrated, and at the same time I was starting a new family. So it was the twin anxieties of trying to find meaningful work and being a good father that fed into this story. At the time, I just thought I was making a funny idea about an over-the-hill superhero. It didn’t occur to me that it was life feeding into it. But I think the reason I was so taken by the idea was because on some level I related to all the characters in the story.”
 Writer/director Brad Bird on The Incredibles (Oscar-winner for Best Animated Feature Film)
Interview with Peter N. Chumo II
creative screenwriting November/December 2004

Related Post: Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2) 

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Bob DeRosa’s “Shortcuts”

“There are no shortcuts. There is only hard work. Perseverance. Luck. Craft. Failure. Success. Mistakes. And yes, dreams that come true.”
Screenwriter Bob DeRosa

Last week screenwriter Bob DeRosa started a new screenwriting blog and the above quote was pulled from his post Shortcuts. While it’s true that screenwriter Diablo Cody not only sold the first screenplay she wrote (Juno), and it got produced, found an audience and got rave reveiws—she won an Academy Award for that first script. That’s called an anomaly. Bob DeRosa’s story is more the norm for screenwriters who get produced and build a career.

“I moved to Los Angeles in 2001 with two solid indie samples. My manager at the time encouraged me to try writing a big studio spec. The resulting script got me my first agent and over thirty general meetings, which led to my first OWA (open writing assignment) for a studio. At the same time, I co-wrote “The Air I Breathe” with director Jieho Lee. It was probably my 15th or 16th feature screenplay, and the first one to get made.

My 23rd script was an original spec called “Five Killers”. Lionsgate bought it, made it, and shortened the title to “Killers. Since then, I’ve written a half-dozen scripts. Some of them have garnered interest but none have been sold yet.”
Bob DeRosa (Killers)

P.S. In the post Beatles, King, Cody & 10,000 Hours I do point out that while Juno was Cody’s first script, in interviews she talked about writing everyday since she was 12 years old so she had a good fifteen year pile of pages before she turned her creative writing to screenwriting.

Related Posts:

Writing Killer Screenplays
Bob DeRosa’s 5 Obstructions
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)
The Secret to Being A Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: