Archive for September, 2013

“Everything’s always about page-turning, right? What’s next? So, if you create questions for audiences, then they’ll want to know the answer. Or they begin to formulate possible outcomes. That’s the game we play when we’re hearing a story unfold. That’s part of what sucks us into a movie.”
Producer/Director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, Rush)
Extended interview: Ron Howard on directing
CBS Sunday Morning

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On this repost Saturday I’m going back to a post I wrote 2 1/2 years ago on Ron Howard. While his latest film Rush (centered around the effects of a race car accident) gets a wide release here in the States this weekend, many people may be unaware that his feature directorial debut released back in 1977–also had to do with cars crashing. Here’s the original trailer for Grand Theft Auto, followed by the post that first ran on February of 2011.

“I literally thought I might get fired at lunch.”
Ron Howard
Speaking about the first day of shooting his first feature film at age 23.
(Grand Theft Auto for Roger Corman. A film Ron co-wrote with his actor father, Rance Howard.)

Ron Howard has had one of the most amazing careers in entertainment history. First, as a youth and a young man he was an actor in several iconic TV shows and movies; The Andy Griffith Show, The Music Man, Happy Days and American Graffiti. He played Huck Finn, met Walt Disney and had cameo parts on Gunsmoke, Lassie, M*A*S*H, The Waltons, and The Twilight Zone. He acted alongside Hollywood legends John Wayne and Lauren Bacall in The Shootist where he earned a Golden Globe nomination.

Then as he shifted to directing he started his education at USC and finished it directing a feature for Roger Corman. From there he’s gone on to make over 30 more films including and as varied as Apollo 13, Cocoon, Slash, Backdraft, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and The Da Vinci Code. In 2002, he won two Oscars for his role as producer and director on A Beautiful Mind. Howard has also won a few Emmys as one of the producers of Arrested Development and From Earth to the Moon.

He comes from a perspective few, if any, can match— accomplish actor, low-budget filmmaker, Oscar-winning Hollywood producer/director. So just maybe he’d be a good person to listen to as the film business transitions to actually not having anything to do with literal film strips. A time when people are asking, “Will there even be movie theaters in the future?”

“It can be unsettlingAny time you go through a period when technology and delivery systems and distribution systems broaden and change, when there are generational shifts—all that influences what filmmakers do, the decisions they make, the kinds of projects they can work on. But I sometimes think about this 96-year-old guy, named Charles Rainsbury, who had a tiny speaking part in Cocoon. He’d been an actor and a film crew member when Fort Lee, New Jersey, was the center of the film world. He hadn’t been on a set since 1915, 1916. When I asked him how movies had changed since then, he said, ‘We didn’t have to shut up when they were shooting then; otherwise, it’s the same, hurry up and wait.’ And I find that comforting. As we go through this period of transition and worry about whether people are seeing our movies in multiplexes or on cell phones—or seeing them at all—I’m reminded that the thing I love is this process that hasn’t changed so much: You try to tell a story that’s meaningful, and share it with people. What really gets me out of bed in the morning is this lifestyle that I’ve always been a part of: the creative problem-solving, the collaboration.”
Ron Howard
DGA Quarterly/Fall 2009

See it’s not really the film biz after all—it’s the story biz. Go tell some meaningful stories.

Link to Ron Howard’s Oscar Acceptance Speech.

Scott W. Smith

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“A rivalry is an act of obsession and love, I wanted [Rush] to feel like a love story even though they were just bashing the living daylights out of each other.”
Rush screenwriter Peter Morgan
Reuter/Rush screenwriter inspired by rivalry, not Formula On racing

“[Rush] was suggested to me by my friend George Lucas, and it was enthralling because of both the unique characters and the thrilling drama of motorsports. When I started working with screenwriter Peter Morgan, we immediately understood that there was the opportunity to make a film that was fresh and different. He’s exceptional in unearthing these surprising conflicts in personal relationships, and the fact that Lauda and Hunt were so different allowed us to work on their profiles in an original way….The main theme is ambition. The level of ambition that’s necessary to overcome fear. Rush also tries to answer a simple, but terrifying question – what pushes a man to flirt so much with death?”
Rush Director Ron Howard
RUSH:The Movie—A Ron Howard Interview

Related Post (Theme, Character, Conflict Emotion cover a lot of ground)
Ron Howard and the Story Biz
Theme (What Your Movie is Really About)
Writing from Theme
Martin Luther King & Screenwriting (Tip #7) “Strong-willed characters”
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1) “Conflict, conflict, conflict”
40 Days of Emotion

P.S. Ron Howard’s two Oscar-Awards were for producing and directing Frost/Nixon, a film which brought Morgan his second screenwriting Oscar-nomination.

Scott W. Smith

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“If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” 
Mario Andretti

“The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel.”
From the Rush movie trailer

The movie Rush hits theaters tomorrow with great expectations. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve always had a fondness for the racing movie Heart Like a Wheel that was released back in 1983—before some of you were born. Bonnie Bedelia shines from the script written Ken Friedman.  While You Tube may not be the ideal way to watch a movie, the video below makes for a nice precursor to the release of Rush tomorrow.

P.S. One of the great phrases from my youth growing up  in Florida was the radio ads that went something like this, “‘Big Daddy’ Garlits and Shirley ‘Cha-Cha’ Muldowney this FRIDAY, SATURDAY, AND SUNDAY at the Gainesville International Raceway. BE THERE! BE THERE! BE THERE!” (Heavy reverb in all the right spots.)

Related post: What’s at Stake? (Tip #9)

Scott W. Smith

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“I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my career. I’ve been invited to be with emperors, kings and prime ministers, but I can tell you right now from the bottom of my heart, being here in Iowa Falls is something I will never, ever forget.”
Actor Hugh Jackman
September 21, 2013

Would you pay $100 for a movie ticket? And one that’s not even in 3-D? (Isn’t this what earlier in the year George Lucas and Steven Spielberg predicated what would happen?) Well just a few days ago people in Iowa did pay $100 and sold out the theater in 35 minutes. What would make people pay $100 to see a movie in the small town of Iowa Falls?

Answer: Hugh Jackman.  Not just a Hugh Jackman movie, but Hugh Jackman the person. The actor fresh off of starring roles in Les Miserable and The Wolverine was in Iowa Falls for the rural premiere of his newest movie Prisoners.  Now you may wonder why what ended up being the top box office movie this past weekend had a red carpet premiere in a town of under 6,000 people.

Answer: Patrick Whitesell. A guy who grew up in Iowa Falls who just happens to be Hugh Jackman’s agent—and co-CEO (with Ari Emanuel) of William Morris Endeavor (WME). Some of the talent represented by WME includes Denzel Washington, Robert Redford, Oprah Winfrey, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarnatino, Christopher Nolan, Lady Gaga, and Charilize Theron.  Now for a guy who writes a blog titled Screenwriting from Iowa I find that pretty darn interesting.

Interesting that one of the world’s largest & oldest talent agencies with headquarters in Beverly Hills has a co-CEO from Iowa Falls. And according to Jackman, Whitesell is one of the good guys in Hollywood.

“I met [Patrick Whitesell] about 15 years ago. Patrick became my agent. I’ve only had one agent, and that’s him. And I would not be where I am in my career today without this man. To you guys, someone with a good sense of humor, who tells the truth, who works hard, and is genuinely a good guy who understands ethics—that’s a normal thing, right? In Hollywood—not so normal.”
Hugh Jackman speaking to the audience at Prisoners premiere in Iowa Falls

Patricks father, Jack Whitesell, is a retired attorney in Iowa Falls and recently bought (along with Patrick I believe) and spent $500,000 to upgrade the Metropolitan Opera House (movie theater) in Iowa Falls. It’s a beautiful building that according to Wikipedia opened in1899 as the Metropolitan Opera House with 800 in attendance and the event proclaimed as “biggest social event in the history of Iowa Falls.” The other film playing last week at the theater’s reopening was The Wolverine. That’s right it was double feature Hugh Jackman night in Iowa Falls.

Now if you’re new to this blog check out my WME-related post centered around WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart.

Screenwriting Quote #172 (Christopher Lockhart)
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 1)
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 2)
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 3)
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 4)
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 5)
Writing “Flight”

A few days after the premiere, Jackman was photographed riding a bike in France. Iowa Falls one day, Paris the next—the glamorous life of a movie star. BTW—I learned a new phrase doing this post; “rural premiere.” Never read those two words together until I read Kyle Munson’s article in his Des Moines Register blog on Jackman’s visit to Iowa. Kind of has a nice ring to it doesn’t it? Maybe rural premiere’s will be the next fad for Hollywood to reconnect with audiences. It fits right in with the old Hollywood marketing question, “Will it play in Peroria?”

P.S. I used to live in Cedar Falls about an hour from Iowa Falls and once shot part of a video there for a regional economic development group. One of the things I learned while producing that video is many companies like that area because it is at the crossroads of Interstate 35 and Interstate 20 (and not far from Interstate 80) with direct routes to Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, Omaha and Kansas City. Food, tractors, and Hollywood agents are made or grown in Iowa and shipped all over the world.

Related Posts:

Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (“Prisoners”)
Nobody Reads Query Letter —Myth (Tip #82)
Query Letter Strikeout  (2011 post about me contacting WME)
Query Letter Strikeout (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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“Just focus on the writing and everything else will fall into place.”
Aaron Guzikowski

While the name Aaron Guzikowski may not roll off the tongue as easy as saying Diablo Cody,  there are similarities between the two screenwriters . Cody is a writer with Chicago/Iowa City/Minneapolis roots who worked a regular (non-creative) job at an advertising agency until her writing got the attention of a Hollywood insider. Guzikowski is a writer from the greater Boston area (Brockton), who had been living in Brooklyn, NY and working a regular (non-creative) job in advertising until his writing got the attention of a Hollywood insider.

Both had been writing since their youth and followed that path through college. Cody studied media studies at the University of Iowa and Guzikowski studied art and film at the Pratt Institute. Cody’s Juno made The Black List before it got produced and became a well reviewed movie and a box office hit—and she won an Academy Award for the script. Guzikowski’s Prisoners also made The Black List, and though just released in theaters it has been well reviewed and is on its way to being a box office hit. (It finished #1 at the box office this past weekend.) Time will tell about any Academy Awards.

One of the big differences between the two writers is Cody was discovered while writing a blog, while Guzikowski via an old school query letter sent in the mail. Cody says she wrote the first draft of Juno in six weeks, and Guzikowski said he took two years to write Prisoners. Regardless, if you’re looking for contemporary success stories of screenwriters who were once living outside of L.A. and working regular day jobs then Cody and Guzikowski (one female, one male) are as solid  examples as you can find.

And they both did it not by writing a great script but by writing material that had a voice and connected them with people inside Hollywood who could help develop that voice. The great scripts and the great movies—and the big money— came later.

“[Guzikowski] finished the screenplay for Prisoners while working at an ad agency in New York – getting up at 5 a.m. to write most workdays, penning his thoughts whenever he could at work, then coming home again to write.”
Maria Papadopoulos
The Enterprise

Back in 2009, I wrote the post called The Breakfast Club for Writers where I pointed out how Elmore Leonard, John Grisham, and Ron Bass all once got up at 5 AM to write before their day jobs. So I guess Guzikowski’s in the club.

But the real take away from Guzikowski is the commitment to craft.

“When it comes to submissions, the only thing you want to stand out is the writing, so it pays to adhere to industry standards. As for competition, there’s not much point thinking about it. Just concentrate on the story you’re trying to tell….I signed with my manager first (through a query letter), worked with him for two years developing Prisoners, then after I completed it, I signed with my agent. You don’t really need an agent until you have something that’s ready for market. In terms of how hard it was, working on the script was the hard part, and if you pay enough dues on that end, then securing representation — even without having previously sold anything — becomes a lot easier.”
Aaron Guzikowski
2009 Q&A/Limite Magazine

P.S. The Boston area sure has a solid history of producing excellent screenwriters.

Related Posts:
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70)
The Idea is King (Focus not writing the great script, but the “right script”)
Screenwriting from Massachusetts
Will Simmons’ Road to Hollywood (Black List writer who was delivering pizzas in Boston a few years ago.)
Writing “Good Will Hunting” These former no-name writers won an Academy Award for their first produced screenplay.

Scott W. Smith

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“Somewhere a screenwriter is preparing a query letter to send out. Will you read the letter? We will. Will you write the letter? You should. It has to start somewhere.”
Producer Adam Kolbrenner (Prisoners)


Let’s go back to 2006. It was a simpler time in America for screenwriters (you know, pre‐WGA Strike). It all started with a query letter from an unrepresented screenwriter named Aaron Guzikowski. A hard letter … in an envelope. With a stamp! Not a blind email or submission through a website. A letter.

I picked up the letter and quite liked that this writer had an odd last name and lived in Brooklyn, NY. I love Brooklyn. So, I called him and he sent me his first script, which I read and called him again to say I can’t sell it. But, he can write, that voice was there. So we agreed we would work on a new idea for a film that we can develop together. This might take a few tries, but we’ll get there.

Several months later, a PDF one page movie idea arrives in my inbox. The story for a movie called Prisoners.”
Adam Kolbrenner, co-founder of Madhouse Entertainment 
Hollywood Journal, September 17, 2013

You’ll have to read the entire article by Adam Kolbrenner to learn how the past seven years came to fruition yesterday as Prisoners took the number one spot at the box office this past weekend.

I wonder if Kolbrenner would mind if I adopted as the official motto for Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places his phrase, “It has to start somewhere.” Because that’s the drum I’ve been pounding on this blog since January 2008. And I’ve tried to show example after great example of how various writers started.

So wherever you are in the world and wherever you are in your screenwriting journey just remember Kolbrenner’s tip—”It has to start somewhere.”

P.S. Of course, screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s start was not the query letter he wrote to Kolbrenner in 2006…or even in Brooklyn. Tomorrow we’ll look at his roots in Brockton, Massachusetts and how this now 39-year-old screenwriter’s journey into writing actually began back in fourth grade.

Related Posts:
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part2)  If an out-of-town writer scores a local manager or agent, the writer can certainly see results.”
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 3) WME explains what to put in a query.
The 99% Focus Rule “I would say 99% of your effort should go to writing a good script.” Michael Arndt (Another writer who toiled for years in Brooklyn before his eventual success.)
The Myth of Breaking-In  Thoughts from screenwriter Terry Rossio
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)  John Logan
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip # 41) Michael Arndt

Scott W. Smith

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On this repost Saturday, I thought I’d reach back to September 2009 when I wrote this post on Lawrence Kasdan that was originally called From West Virginia to Hollywood:

Since Diablo Cody is my poster child (female) for a screenwriter coming from outside L.A. (and the original inspiration for this blog)  then I think I’ll name Lawrence Kasdan as the poster child (male) screenwriter from outside L.A. Kasdan was raised in Morgantown, West Virginia. Quick, name another screenwriter from West Virginia.

(While Morgantown is the second largest city in West Virginia it only has about 30,000 residents not including the students at the University of West Virginia. My lasting memory of Morgantown goes back to 1994 when I was there for a video shoot and the news broke of O.J. Simpson’s famous low-speed police chase. I remember walking down the main drag and seeing restaurant/bar after restaurant/bar having the same helicopter shot of the Simpson’s white Ford Bronco on their TVs.)

Kasdan left Morgantown to attend the University of Michigan where he was an English major. A gifted writer he would go on to win Hopwood Prize at UM for creative writing. In his 30s he became  one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood with a string of box office hits— Star Wars: The Empire Strikes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. He has also had  three Oscar nominations for his screenwriting —Grand Canyon, The Accidental Tourist, and The Big Chill.

But what I think you’ll be interested in is that little period between college in Ann Arbor, Michigan and his first sale as a screenwriter. While reading The First Time I Got Paid for It, Writers’ Tales from the Hollywood Trenches I found this retelling by Kasdan when he would have been a 28-year-old advertising copywriter:

“One summer day in 1977 my agent asked to lunch, which was so unusual it made me nervous. It has taken me a long time to get an agent, so naturally, I was worried about hanging on to him. For two years now he had been trying to sell a thriller I had written for my favorite star Steve McQueen, who didn’t know I’d written this thriller for him. Originally, the agent thought he wouldn’t have much trouble selling the script, so he agreed to represent me. But after sixty-seven rejections he was getting discouraged.”

But his agent didn’t want to part ways with Kasdan, but he did want Kasdan to try his hand at writing for television, specifically Starsky & Hutch. Kasden reluctantly agreed to give it a shot. Soon he heard back from the powers that be at Starsky & Hutch that he didn’t have the goods to write for the show. He told the agent not to give up on him that he had a new screenplay in the works that was almost done. He thought that would buy him a little more time to breakthrough.

Then Kasdan writes, “But when I came into my job the next day, there was a message that my agent had called. Could he have changed his mind overnight? Of course he could. After nine years of writing screenplays without success, I believed only bad things were going to happen to me. But what he had to tell me wasn’t bad. It was kind of miraculous. After two years and all that rejection, suddenly two different parties were interested in my thriller—which was called The Bodyguard.”

So while you dream of writing the next  Raiders of the Lost Ark or Return of the Jedi (or get discouraged in your own career) remember Kasden’s line, “After nine years of writing screenplays without success.” And also keep in mind that while that first sale came in 1977 it was fifteen years before the film The Bodyguard was produced and released into theaters. (The film starred Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in roles that were originally thought would star Steve McQueen & Barbra Streisand. The movie made over $400 million worldwide.)

Related posts:
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Screenwriting from Michigan
Raiders Revisited (part 1)
Postcard #8 (West Virginia Fall Colors)
Quote from the Road #2 (Morgantown)
Jennifer Garner’s Old W.V. Job

Scott W. Smith

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“When I was traveling the Midwest by car, bus and train, I regularly visited small-town libraries and found that readers in Keokuk, Iowa, or Benton Harbor, Mich., were checking out Proust and Joyce and even Svevo and Andrei Biely. D. H. Lawrence was also a favorite. And sometimes I remember that God was willing to spare Sodom for sake of the 10 of the righteous. Not that Keokuk was anything like wicked Sodom, or that Proust’s Charlus would have been tempted to settle in Benton Harbor, Mich. I seem to have had a persistent democratic desire to find evidence of high culture in the most unlikely places.”
Pulitzer Prize & Nobel Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow (Humboldt’s Gift)
Hidden Within Technology’s Empire, a Republic of Letter
The New York Times
October 11, 1999

P.S. This blog is about a sense of place as much as it is about screenwriting. And I love stories about big success that originates from small places. There is no greater example in cinematic history of the writer/director born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada who is the only filmmaker to make a film that has made $2 billion dollars. And James Cameron’s actually done that twice, Avaitar and Titanic. As I point out in the post Filmmaking Quote #7 (James Cameron), part of his success is being raised in a town of just 2,000 people and having to ride a school bus for two hours a day to and from school. Two hours he spent reading books. For what it’s worth, Saul Bellow was also born in Canada—Lachine, Quebec.

Related Posts:

Mark Twain (His first paid job as a writer was for a newspaper in Keokuk, Iowa.)
The Juno-Iowa Connection (The University of Iowa in Iowa City—where Tennessee Williams,  Diablo Cody and many other writers attended— is an hour and a half drive directly north of Keokuk.)
Screenwriting Quote #2 (Skip Press) “If you live in Keokuk, Iowa, and write a screenplay…”
Postcard #33 (Quincy, Iowa) About half a hour directly south of Keokuk.
Screenwriting from Michigan (Yeah, Michigan has helped shape some pretty good writers.)
Kalamafrickin’zoo’s Talent Pool  (Kalamazoo is less than an hour drive from Benton Harbor, MI)

Scott W. Smith

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