Archive for June, 2013

“Education isn’t about filling a pail, but igniting a fire.”
Poet W.B. Yeats

On this re-post Saturday we’re going back to one of the first ten posts I ever wrote, Can Screenwriting Be Taught?  (That’s more that 1,500 posts ago for anyone keeping score.) Not much to add here, but I think most teachers echo this thought,”I can’t guarantee to make you a great writer, but I can make you a better writer.” (Can’t remember who first said that.)

And while there is nothing new under the sun, what I’ve tried to do in the more than five years since writing this post is to find quotes and thoughts from more than 400 gifted screenwriters and filmmakers that I could organize in a way that I thought would be helpful.  Take what works for you and continue on your journey.

Here’s the post that was originally published February 20, 2008:

Can Screenwriting Be Taught?


“I wrote screenplays as a way to get into production. I wrote six or seven before I sold one.”
Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat)

There is an age-old question; Can writing be taught?

Don’t be silly, of course it can.

When it comes to most things in life we expect that we must be taught how to do them properly. We are taught how to ride a bike, swim, our A-B-C’s, to a drive a car, how to be a doctor or a mechanic. Talent and drive will play a part in how well we do something, but Tiger Woods’ dad taught him how to hit a golf ball and Archie Manning taught his boys (Peyton & Eli, Super Bowl MVPs) how to throw a football.

For some reason when it comes to the arts many yield to the old saying that that is a talent we are simply born with. I took the photo of the little red school house yesterday just for this blog. (I took the barn photo at the top as well while driving to a short film I was working on this summer.) I was taught in high school and college about lighting, composition, exposures, etc. I took bad pictures and teachers told me what I did wrong. I read books and studied great photographers. I learned how to be a photographer. (It probably didn’t hurt that my mom was an art teacher.) While I don’t claim to be the next Ansel Adams, that skill has paid a few bills.

Here’s what the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop states on their website:

“Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed. If one can ‘learn’ to play the violin or to paint, one can ‘learn’ to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.”

Okay, so maybe they had a lawyer look over that document so it essentially says writing can’t be taught but it is something you can learn. Fine. I’m in their camp on this matter. If they don’t want to use the T word that’s their prerogative. With their track record they can call what goes on there whatever they want. (But I do think we’re dealing with a degree of semantics between educating, training, honing skills, inspiring, developing, encouraging and teaching.)

Often when people talk about being self-taught they mean they weren’t taught in the formal sense of going to school and taking classes. But make no mistake, they were taught. One can learn in a variety of ways outside a classroom, but having a mentor is the best way to learn a trade. That is the way the Renaissance painters learned. It was a tradition passed down for generations in various trades be it a blacksmith, a glass blower, or a carpenter. In the United States that model has been eclipsed a good deal by academia.

How would someone go about teaching themselves how to write if they lived, say, in the middle-of-nowhere? Here’s what screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wrote, “Inhale a writer you admire. Knowing nothing about writing a play, Paddy Chayefsky (Network) taught himself playwriting by sitting down at the typewriter and copying Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour word for word. He said, ‘I studied every line of it and kept asking myself, Why did she write this particular line.’” That’s a passion for learning.

Now probably the majority of writers these days do come from a college educated background. But it’s not a requirement. Neil Simon said the closest he got to college was walking by NYU. At one time Simon had three plays running on Broadway and has had a string of hit films. Where did he learn how to write? He credits his older brother Danny.

Academy Award winning writer of Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino said, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, no, I went to films.” That was his education. He also studied acting and took a filmmaking workshop or two.

Some writers come from law school (John Grisham) and some from medical school (Michael Crichton. Who, by the way, wrote Twister shot here in Iowa–can’t pass those opportunities.) Writers come from everywhere.

And writers keep writing. One thing I will keep shouting on this blog is that screenwriters that get produced are relentless. I just read an interview with Geoff Rodkey, who said after his screenplay Daddy Day Care was released, “I’ve written something like eighteen screenplays, and this is the only one that’s ever been made.” Sure the reviews were less than glowing, but my hat goes off to anyone who can pull in $100 million in the box office.

And what do writers do before that breakthrough? They keep writing.

“I felt the years go by without accomplishment. Occasionally I wrote a short story that no one bought. I called myself a writer though I had no true subject matter. Yet from time to time I sat at a table and wrote, although it took years for my work to impress me.”
Bernard Malamud (The Natural and Pulitzer Prize winner The Fixer)

“Learning to write is not a linear process. There is no logical A-B-C way to become a good writer.”
Natalie Goldberg.

There may not be a logical way to being a good writer, but having a good mentor or teacher is probably the most common factor found in successful writers. You’re fortunate if you can find one in your life. This is not to be confused with a screenwriting guru who passes though town over the weekend. They can be helpful as I’ve pointed out before, but are best seen as a quick motivational jolt.  A mentor or teacher guides you through the ups and downs of your learning process. They invest in you as a writer and as a person. They nurture your writing.

Lew Hunter who helped found the masters in screenwriting program at UCLA used to open his home in Burbank to writers. Since retiring he now runs Lew Hunter’s Superior Summer Screenwriting Colony in Nebraska. He used to teach fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne (Sideways).

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
John Steinbeck

Though none of my feature screenplays have been produced I have had the opportunity to hear actors say words I have written for short films, radio dramas, one-act plays and video productions. I’ve had over a 100 newspaper and magazine articles published. And I have carved out a 20-year career working in media production. And it all began with one teacher at Lake Howell High School who took an interest in developing in me a skill in writing that I didn’t really know I had. (Honestly, I signed up for her creative writing class because it looked like an easy elective.)

“A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows and rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.”

So this Monday Night when ABC airs a new version of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (starring Sean Combs) I will be watching and thinking of Dr. Annye Refoe who showed the Sidney Poitier film version to our creative writing class. For it was there I began to see and appreciate powerful writing.

Somewhere in Hansberry’s education growing up in Chicago and later at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she learned how to write. And she took some negative experiences that had happened in her life and turned them into something that we’re still watching today. If you’re a writer, I hope your work finds that kind of light. And if you’re a teacher, may you help your students write one single good poem, or perhaps a single good screenplay.

Scott W. Smith

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“It was Chandor’s script, filled with tart exchanges and involving situations that explore unexpected areas of corporate psychology and human behavior, that attracted the high-powered cast…”
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times film critic
Regarding Margin Call which starred Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, and Simon Baker

Like a lot of people (including the Coen Brothers) I’m transiting from editing on Final Cut Pro to Adobe Premiere Pro. I weighed my options for over a year before jumping into Premiere last week. The main thing that forced the issue was having a reality show pilot I’m editing that has over 500 gig of footage from four different types of cameras. Without getting too technical for the non-video editors out there, not having to transcode 500 gig of footage was worth the switch to Premiere alone. So far, the transition has been a smooth one.

And one of the things that’s made it a smooth transition is the online training tutorials I use at lynda.com. This morning I was looking over some of lynda.com’s hundreds of course titles and noticed they had a screenwriting panel discussion from the 27th Annual Santa Barbera International Film Festival and I found this sound bite from a screenwriter who had a 15 year journey before his screenwriting dream become a produced reality :

“I had been a not very successful commercial and documentary director that was trying to write and direct my own material. So I had written one or two projects that I had worked on for seven or eight years. One finally sort of came together, and then blew up prior to principal photography. And we had a deposit, a full crew, I mean we were ready to go. I had taken eight or nine months off of working on anything else and had a young baby at the time and had put myself in a terrible financial position. So I walked away for almost three years. And this story sort of started to grow in my head, and then I finally sat down and wrote it very quickly. Gave it to two people and very superstitiously felt like if something was meant to come from it it would. And not to be melodramatic about it but it was sort of my last shot at [screenwriting]. I think I knew it was the best thing I’d ever written up until that point so I felt like if something would come from it it would. And it did thankfully.”
J.C. Chandor speaking about his first produced feature film Margin Call (2011) for which he received an Oscar nomination

Chandor made his first short film at Wooster College in Ohio and graduated from there in 1996. It takes a little time sometimes. (Actually, more often than not.)

Related Posts:
lynda.com for President
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)
First Screenplay, Oscar—Precious (“I devoted myself to writing for years without representation or a promise of anything.”— Geoffrey Fletcher)

Scott W. Smith

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“Emotion grows out of conflict.”
Michael Hague


“The goal of every screenplay, every movie, every novel, every story of any kind (and ultimately, every work of art) is identical: to elicit emotion.

We go to the movies and we read books so we can feel something positive or fulfilling, something we can’t feel as frequently or as intensely in our everyday lives. The storyteller’s job is to create that feeling for the mass audience. 

When you’re pitching your story, you must provide buyers with a positive emotional experience. And you must convince them that when your movie is made, or your novel published or your play produced, your story will create an even stronger emotional experience for people who buy tickets, and books, and DVDs.”
Michael Hague
Selling Your Story in 60 seconds

Related Posts:
Emotional Transportation Biz (Tip #68)
40 Days of Emotions
No Emotions? “Your Screenplay Sucks!”
Michael Hauge (Part 3) 100 percent of screenwriters who are now working at one time weren’t working.”
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m stuck here in this mudhole for life, doing the same dull work day after day…I never did anything really useful or interesting, and it looks as if I never will. I might just as well be dead. 
George Pratt in The Greatest Gift

“Even the smallest voice can be heard by millions.”
Jay Z

Before It’s a Wonderful Life became the much loved film It’s a Wonderful Life it was a humble short story that couldn’t find a publisher. Since Philip Van Doren Stern couldn’t get his 4,000 word story titled The Greatest Gift published by traditional means he printed 200 copies on his own and sent them as Christmas cards in 1943. Good Housekeeping magazine published the story in 1944 under the title The Man Who Was Never Born.

Frank Capra somehow got a copy of the story and allegedly said something in line with having waited all his life to find The Greatest Gift. It’s a Wonderful Life was released in 1946 with Capra directing James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore in the lead roles. The film received five Oscar-nominations a eventually became a Christmas standard. It’s number 20 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies.

The opening hook of the short story of a man contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve fits well one of my favorite writing quotes:

“I would never write about a character who is not at the end of his rope.”
Stanley Elkin

Stern was born in 1900 in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania which even today has less than a 1,000 residents. According to Wikipedia he was raised in Brooklyn, New York and New Jersey and graduated from Rutgers University. When he died in 1984 the NY Times wrote, “During his career as an editor, he worked for Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf.” He also wrote more than 40 historical books including ”The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln” and  ”Robert E. Lee: The Man and the Soldier.”

Though today Stern’s books are not widely remember—and perhaps even his name obscured by time—his little story that came to him in a dream has found quite a world wide audience. (According to an article by Daven Hiskey, in 1992 It’s a Wonderful Life was the first American program ever shown on Russian television. It was broadcast to 200 million viewers.)

“It is a story about depression and disillusionment, alcoholism and attempted suicide. And yet for all that, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life has just been voted the most inspirational film ever made.”
2006 article in The Guardian

Stern’s daughter Dr. Marguerite Stern Robinson said one of the themes of the story is “the awesome power of apparent insignificance.” In one limited edition of the book Robinson wrote in the forward, “The business about the insignificance is very important. George wished he had never been born. It was only after he learned for himself what the world would have been like without him that he begs to be returned to his life.”

P.S. It should be pointed that Donna Reed, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, showed Lionel Barrymore how to milk a cow on the set of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Here’s a PDF of The Greatest Gift.

Related article: The Real Bedford Falls

Related Posts:
Don’t Waste Your Life
Legacy Filmmaking (& Your Bank Account)
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…(Part 9)
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76)
Screenwriting Quote #182 (Richard Krevolin) “All characters are wounded souls…”
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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“My favorite Christmas film is It’s a Wonderful Life and I think Capra did a great job of balancing the light and the dark, the comedic and the dramatic—but George Bailey from the mid-point on he’s got to go through some really tough, dark stuff. And I think the reason that that film lives on today, and the reason every time you watch it is you get choked up at the end is because—I don’t care how tough you are—it’s because it’s earned. He had to go to the tough place and when he gets that reconciliation, his redemption— and not only the reunion with his family, but all those folks from the town come—you bought it and it’s okay to get sappy, mushy, dusty, whatever because I felt Capra and Jimmy Stewart earned that.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns (The Brothers McMullen, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas)
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

P.S. Capra always gets a lot of credit for It’s a Wonderful Life for obvious reasons, but if you look at the IMDB credits for that film here’s what you’ll see in the writing credits:
Francis Goodrich (screenplay) and
Albert Hackett (screenplay) and
Frank Capra (screenplay)
Jo Swerling (additional scenes)
Philip Van Doren Stern (story)
Michael Wilson (contributor to screenplay (uncredited)

Goodrich and Hackett won the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for their play The Diary of Anne Frank. They both also received 4 Oscar nominations including their script for The Father of the Bride (1950). Swerling, who was born in Ukraine, was a Tony-Award winning writer and lyricist and received an Oscar nomination for co-writing The Pride of the Yankees. Stern was born in Wyalusing, Pennsylvania and was an accomplished historian who wrote over 40 books. So there was a lot of talent behind the story/script of It’s a Wonderful Life. How many people mention Stern as the original source of It’s a Wonderful Life?  Tomorrow I’ll write about how Stern couldn’t get his short story that became It’s a Wonderful Life published so— in the true independent spirit—he published it himself.

Related Posts:

Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings (Part 2)
It’s a Wonderful Prison (“Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”—Frank Darabont)
Filmmaking Quote #28 (Frank Capra)
Emotional Screenwriting (Tip #53)
Writing Quote #22 (Dara Marks)
Hope & Redemption
Screenwriting Quote #146 (Edward Burns)
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns

Scott W. Smith

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“Coliving spaces develop unique cultures based on the location and people chosen, their mission statement, and house activities. The underlying culture gives birth to serendipitous connections between residents who share similar values and passions.”
Jessica Reeder

The Artist

If you’ve been following trends in Silicon Valley then you know about Live+Work Mansions (also called Live+Work Space). Basically large homes where entrepreneurs, creatives, and the like live and work together for a few days, weeks, months, or longer. The thought being that dividing where you work and where you live is old school. Plus the fact that the cost of living in California is high, this is an affordable/reasonable option to gather with like-minded people as you work on your business start-up or creative venture. (Or if you work at Google or Apple and don’t want an hour and a half commute.) Think of it as a commune for the 2000s.

I don’t know when the phrase “Live+Work Mansion” hit the scene, perhaps the pharse was coined a few years ago by a cleaver realtor when there was a glut of McMansions on the market due to the downturn in the economy. I do know the concept seems to be growing.  (Here are some examples; Rainbow Mansion, TheGlint, Langton Laboratories.)

I also don’t know if there are similar set ups for filmmakers in LA, Austin or wherever—but I imagine there are. When writer/director Shane Black (Iron Man 3) was starting out he lived in the ’80s version of a Live+Work Mansion known as the Pad O’ Guys. A group of 10-12 guys and girls who were like mined in wanting careers in filmmaking. Here’s how an LA Times article described the place back in 1990:

“The center of [Shane Black’s] social life is the Pad O’ Guys. Conversation at the Pad, a cross between an L.A. Algonquin round-table and a bull session by a couple white guys hanging around a mini-mall, ranges from banter about great-looking babes to semi-serious discussions of favorite movies. “We’re not totally geeks, but we used to be,” he says by way of explaining the bond that keeps a core group of 10 or 15 guys and a couple of girls together seven years after finishing college.”

Several screenwriters emerged from the Pad O’ Guys including Ed Solomon (Men in Black), David Silverman (The Simpsons) and Jim Herzfeld (Meet the Parents). Here’s how Black himself described the Pad O’ Guys helped him early in his career:

“I would do odd jobs. I was a temp guy. I worked as a dispatcher for a computer repair company and I was just writing on the side. I hung out with a group of buddies—about a dozen, some girls, but mostly guys. And together we had this group that all talked about movies and met late at night. There was a sign in the window “Open 24 hours” and it really truly was. Anytime you wanted to stop by there was somebody in there doing some crazy thing—making a movie, arguing about a film, we had our own game of Jeopardy where we’d invite all the chicks over. We were the geek fraternity, we were the nerds. It wasn’t a true fraternity, it was just 12 people who loved film. Of those 12 I’d say 10 succeeded in a fairly substantial, maybe even spectacular way, and helped each other on the way by reaching back down the ladder and pulling someone up a rung. And in turn that person helping their friend. I think for that reason it’s important to surround yourself with as many friends who are like-mined, people that you share this passion for film with, who think along the lines as you do. Get a group of like-minded people together, not for the purposes of networking—it’s not about using—it’s about finding friends who are as excited as you are—and that makes the odds [of succeeding] quadruple. Start a writer’s group or join a writer’s group is my usual advice.”
Shane Black
2005 talk to students in Minneapolis

Shane Black credits his writer friend Fred Dekker as the guy who reached down and pulled him up a rung by giving his script “to his agent to pass around to see if anyone liked it.” After Shane’s early success he and his buddies lived in the Fremont Place house/mansion used as George Valentin’s home in The Artist.

P.S. If you can shoot and edit video I bet you could live in Live+Work Mansion for free producing videos for entrepreneurs in the house. (Plus you’ll pick-up quite a few business skills and connections along the way.)  So many creative options these days.

Related Article: Hacking Home: Coliving Reinvents the Commune for a Networked Age by Jessica Reeder

Scott W. Smith

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“If there’s one thing I learned in prison it’s that money is not the prime commodity in our lives…time is.”
Gordon Gekko
2009 script Money Never Sleeps written by Alan Loeb

On this repost Saturday I’m going back to a 2008 post I wrote after a tornado hit Iowa. When a tragedy hits somewhere in the world or someone famous dies I think of this post. This week actor James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) died at age 51. My thought and prayers go out to the Gandolfini family. If there is a face to the positive change that hit television in the late 90s it is of Tony Soprano played by Gandolfini.

But Dang, 51 isn’t that old. Though that’s how old screenwriter/blogger Blake Snyder (Save the Cat) was when he died. Shane Black who I’ve been quoting all week is still very much alive at age 51. I happen to be 51. So that number did jump out at me when I heard the news.

Death is no respecter of age—or of persons. So this is just a reminder to have a life beyond your work and creative endeavors.

“Screenwriting is a huge part of my life. It’s my profession, it is my vocation. It has been so for nearly two decades now and hopefully for another decade still. It’s not the most important thing in my life by far. By far! You know, my wife, my kids, it’s not the be all, end all.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin (Identity Thief)
Scriptnotes Ep. 87

Here’s the post that originally ran on May 31, 2008:

“When you drink from the well, remember the well-digger.”
Chinese proverb

Parkersburg, Iowa
©2008 Scott W. Smith

Last Sunday one of my partners at River Run Productions had 15 seconds to make it into his basement with his wife and dog before an EF 5 rated tornado ripped through his Parkersburg, Iowa home.

In less than a minute his house was gone and both cars totaled. But he, his wife and dog were safe. The storm killed seven people, destroyed over 200 homes, and damaged another 400.

Iowa is no stranger to tornadoes, but this one was the most powerful to hit the state in over 30 years. It’s one more reminder that things can change in a New York minute—or even an Iowa minute.

Friday I went to Parkersburg to shoot footage of the destruction and interviews for an insurance company.  I have been through a hurricane in Florida and a major earthquake in California and I have never personally seen the devastation that I saw as the result of that tornado.

From where I took the above photo, every direction I looked basically looked the same. It’s amazing that more people weren’t killed. Human beings tend to have short memories so this is one more thing to help remind us how fragile life is.

I’ve written a lot about writing on this blog but not much about keeping life in perspective with a creative career. The fact is most of us have difficulty balancing our lives.

I’ve collected some of my favorite quotes over the years that are a little random, but I hope there’s something in here that you can hang your hat on—or at least cause you to smile or reflect on your life and dreams. But mainly I want you to understand that whatever creative dreams you have there’s more to life than chasing that rainbow.

“My biggest disappointment so far is that having a career has not made me happy.”
Shane Black
(Quote after being paid $1.75 million for writing The Last Boy Scout and $4M for The Long Kiss Goodnight)

“It’s an accepted fact that all writers are crazy, even the normal ones are weird.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade                                                                  

 “I don’t dress until 5 p.m. I have a bathrobe that can stand…Yes, I am divorced. One writes because one literally couldn’t get another job or has no choice.”
Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind)

“I got into screenwriting for the best of all reasons: I got into it for self-therapy.”
Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver)

“For the first couple of years that I wrote screenplays, I was so nervous about what I was doing that I threw up before I began writing each morning. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s much better than reading what you’ve written at the end of the day and throwing up.”
Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct)

“I’m not very good at writing. If I succeed, it’s by fluke.”
Shane Black (Lethal Weapon)

“If you get rejected, you have to persist. Don’t give up. It was the best advice I ever got.”
Anna Hamilton Phelan (Mask)

“The myth about me is that I sold my first screenplay and it’s true. But I had also worked very hard as a fiction writer for ten years and that’s how I learned the craft of telling stories.”
Akiva Goldman (A Beautiful Mind)
He also has a masters in fiction from NYU

“I spent 18 years doing stand up comedy. Ten years learning, four years refining, and four years of wild success.” (It’s worth noting that Martin was on top when he walked away from stand up comedy and never performed as a comedian again.)
Steve Martin
Born Standing Up

“Starting in 2002, I knew for a fact that I had to get out of this business. It was too hard. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough, it was that it was too hard. What kept me in it was laziness and fear. It would be nice to say it was passion and I’m a struggling artist who didn’t give up on his craft. All of that sounds good, but the truth is it was laziness and fear.” 
Alan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire)

“Like the career of any athlete, an artist’s life will have its injuries. These go with the game. The trick is to survive them, to learn how to let yourself heal.”
 Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way

Dee: “Jane, do you ever feel like you’re just this far from being completely hysterical 24 hours a day?”
Jane: “Half the people I know feel that way. The lucky ones feel that way. The rest of the people are hysterical 24 hours a day.”
Exchange from Lawrence Kasden’s Grand Canyon

“We’re constantly buying crap we don’t need and devoting ourselves to endeavors which, perhaps on reflection, with a little bit of distance, would reveal themselves to be contrary to our own best interest.”
David Mamet      

Everything in this town (L.A.) plays into the easy buttons that get pushed and take people off their path; greed, power, glamour, sex, fame.”
Ed Solomon (Men in Black)

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.
Stephen King

So life in general is hard, and being a writer or in the creative arts is a double helping of difficulty.

Several years ago Stephen King was hit by a van when he was on a walk. One leg was broken in nine places and his knee was reduced to “so many marbles in a sock,” his spine was chipped in eight places, four ribs were broken, and a laceration to his scalp required 30 stitches. It was as if his characters Annie Wilkes (Misery) and Cujo had ganged up on him.

But he had learned a thing or two about adversity after an earlier bout with drugs and alcohol that he eventually won. One of thing things he learned was to not to get a massive desk and put it in the center of the room like he did early in his career. That is, writing shouldn’t be the most important thing in your life.

“Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room.  Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Stephen King
On Writing 

Two years ago I produced a DVD based on the book Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper. The concept was to shoot a Koyaanisqatsi-style video that that showed the arc of life from birth to death. I shot footage from New York City to Denver. I shot footage of a one day old baby in a hospital, people walking into an office building in Cleveland, snow failing in a cemetery and the like.  One of the shots for that video was in Parkersburg, Iowa.

It was a traditional Friday night high school football game at Aplington-Parkersburg High School. (What makes this school unique is though the town only has a population of 2,000 it currently has 4 active graduates playing in the NFL.)  That high school building is a total loss because of the tornado. Here’s a photo of the scoreboard sign that was blown down during the storm.

There will always be the storms of life. And as I’ve written before, movies can help us endure those storms and even inspire us. (“Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”-Carlos Stevens) So work on your craft because we need great stories that give us a sense of direction, but don’t waste your life just writing screenplays.

Related Posts:

Don’t Waste Your Life (Part 2)

words & photos copyright ©2008  Scott W. Smith

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“The thing I’m always fighting off is wasted time and writer’s block.”
Edward Burns


“I have a shoebox and—I have two of them actually. And every time I have an idea for a scene or a scrap of dialogue, or even just a snippet of an impression I have that seems to connote something in my head, I’ll put it in a shoebox. I’ll let six months go by until there’s all these accumulated papers in there. Napkins and business cards and everything that’s scribbled on and I dump it out. And I read through all of the things I’ve collected in the last six months. And some of the things you don’t even remember writing and you can’t even interpret what in the hell it means. Just see if anything connects. Just see if there is a thread that runs through any of the things that obviously that you’ve been thinking about or has been recurring in your subconscious in the last six months. You see what jells—what suggests a shape.
Writer/Director Shane Black
Speaking to students in Minneapolis

“I have three corkboards and then a wall in my office that I painted with the stuff that you can turn into a chalkboard. So basically what I do is I have one corkboard that is divided into four strips. The first act, the first part of the second act, then the second half of the second act, and then the third act. And within that I have index cards of reminders of every screenwriting book that I’ve read. So it’s just like when I’m writing and I’m stuck I’ll just stand in front of the board and say, ‘Oh, Blake Snyder says this, Syd Field says that, Robert McKee says this.’ And a lot of times I can just bust through that the writer’s block…It’s funny when I saw the documentary on Woody Allen and he has the bedside table with all these strips of paper—my version of that is my corkboards. If I have an idea I write it down and post it on the board. And then my chalkboard is basically—since environment is so important to me I want my world to feel very real—that’s usually a listing of my locations.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns
The Q&A Podcast with Jeff Goldsmith

P.S. The above photo is actually a Nike shoebox of mine that has various ideas for screenplay ideas I’d like to explore. Because I played a little football back in the day, there are always themes there that I like exploring. The CNN article was written in 2009 after former NFL quarterback Steve McNair (whose nickname was Air McNair) was killed by his mistress in a murder-suicide. Then earlier this year I read an article about NBA great Michael Jordan who was quoted as saying basically he’d give up all his wealth and fame if he could just play professional basketball again. And that isn’t just an idea that has been percolating in my brain for the past five years, it goes back more than a decade.

The box has various articles and ideas including an insightful Sports Illustrated piece about former Cleveland Brown QB Bernie Kosar and how he went through the $50 million he made before filing for bankruptcy. (Kosar says he was good at making money, but not good at keeping it.) In my shoebox are reports on the lingering effects of head injuries on NFL players. Former players who’ve committed suicide. Index cards that read things like  “Watch North Dallas Forty and “Watch The Electric Horseman”—a 1979 Sydney Pollack directed and Robert Garland written movie starring Robert Redford who played a former rodeo star trying to hold on to his dignity. I don’t know if all those notes, thoughts, and articles will ever lead to a screenplay—but that’s all part of the process.  Judd Apatow (This is 40) types notes/ideas/dialogue on his phone and David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)  says he “tricks himself into writing” by emailing ideas to himself.

So whether it’s a shoebox, a corkboard, cell phone, or email—find what works for you to gather ideas and move forward with writing your screenplay.

Related Post:

Screenwriting Via Index Cards

Scott W. Smith

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Shane Black on Theme

“What I do is I try to figure out what the piece is about and link that to the story arc or the character arc.  I always think there’s two things going on in any script—there’s the story and then there’s the plot.  The plot is the events.  If it’s a heist film, it’s how they get in and out.  But the story is why we’re there, why we’re watching the events.  It’s what’s going on with the characters.  And theme above that.  Once I get those things, once I know what the theme is and what it’s about, I can start trying on story beats and plot beats to see if they feel like they’re moving, but they have to relate to the overall theme.”
Writer/director Shane Black
Creative Screenwriting interview by Peter Clines 

P.S. I can’t find the exact quote but I saw an interview where Black said that no matter how much you’ve been knocked down you can always come back. Seems that would be the theme of Iron Man 3, of its star Robert Downey Jr., and of Black himself.

Related posts:

Theme: What Your Movie is Really About
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Writing from Theme (tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme

Scott W. Smith

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“[Before writing the script] I try to see the trailer in my head. I watch the preview as I’m writing and get the shape—the overall shape. Not just what happens, but what the whole thing is going to feel like. If I were to cut a mental trailer for the film that would generate the best possible explication of the shape that exists that I’m trying so desperately to define what would those images be that would suggest more fully that particular shape? And then I work and try to create that.
Writer/ Director Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Iron Man 3)
Shane Black Interview

Question for readers of this blog who cut trailers for a living; Do you find cross-overs between cutting trailers and your screenwriting? Have any editing trailer tips that can help fellow screenwriters? And I know some filmmakers actually shoot the trailer to try and help raise funds. Anybody have a story about how a shooting a trailer helped raise funds to make your film?

Wired has an article on The Art of the Trailer written by Jason Kehe and Katie M. Palmer. Wired also has these related articles:
Mark Woolen Spill Secrets of the Movie Trailer Biz
What’s the Best Trailer Ever?
Movie Trailers Are Getting Insanely Fast. Trust Us, We Counted the Cuts
Wolverine: Anatomy of a Trailer Campaign 

And just in case you haven’t seen the video trailer for Every Oscar-winning Movie Ever:

Scott W. Smith

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