Archive for June, 2014

“I love finding the worst things happening at the best moments of a person’s life. So trying to have a scene that embodies those disparate elements of joy and agony when you keep pushing and pulling the characters like that—that’s fun writing.”
Two-time Oscar-winning producer/director/writer Paul Haggis (Crash)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

When I heard the above Haggis quote about “the worst things happening at the best moments of a person’s life” I thought of the movie Kramer vs. Kramer where near the start of the film Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is put in charge of a large advertising account that if he succeeds will land him a nice promotion. He comes home to his family excited at this opportunity only to have his wife (Meryl Streep) tell him that’s she’s leaving him.

Hoffman’s character summarizes his wife leaving saying, “she’s ruined one of the five best days of my life.” Super example of “the worst things happening at the best moments of a person’s life.”

Robert Benton won Oscars for both writing and directing Kramer vs. Kramer, as did Hoffman and Streep for their roles. The film based on the novel Kramer vs. Kramer by Avery Corman also won best picture. The 35-year-old film holds up well today, and even though it was released four years before actress Emily Blunt (The Devil Wear Prada, Edge of Tomorrow) was born this is what she had to say about the movie:

Kramer vs. Kramer makes me weep. I love that offset of the dynamic, of the father being the main caretaker and his life being put into uproar in trying adapt and take care of this little boy. I love the perseverance of that film, and it makes me bawl my eyes out.”
Emily Blunt
Five Favorite Films with Emily Blunt

And if that’s not enough for you to go back and check out the movie, screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) says the Kramer vs. Kramer script is one of five you need to study in order to understand screenwriting structure.  It’s one full of meaningful conflict and emotions.

What movie scenes jump to your mind that mix joy and agony?

Related Posts:
Filmmaking Quote #14 ((Robert Benton)
Screenwriting Quote #104 (Robert Benton)
Starting Your Screenplay
Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith 

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Yesterday I visited DeLand, Florida not knowing that it was just listed by Parade Magazine as one of 16 cities in their Best’s American Main Street competition. I took the above photo of the restore Athens Theatre just a block off the main drag in DeLand.  The historic theatre first opened on January 6, 1922. (Anyone know what movie played when it first opened?) The theatre’s name came from the town’s founder Henry DeLand who envisioned DeLand as the Athens of Florida.

DeLand is home to Stetson University which was named after the Philadelphia hat maker John B. Stetson who died in DeLand in 1906. The stadium where Stetson University plays its football games is the same stadium featured in the Adam Sandler movie The Waterboy (1999).  Both Ghost Story (1981) with Fred Astaire and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and the HBO program From the Earth to the Moon filmed on the  Stetson campus.

DeLand is also a major area for skydiving. If I recall correctly, when Tom Cruise was shooting Days of Thunder in nearby Daytona Beach (and I think even a few scenes in DeLand) he went skydiving with Skydive DeLand. (Remember reading that the producers weren’t too happen to hear about that.)

Singer/songwriter Terence Trent D’Arby who won a Grammy in 1988 for Best R&B Vocal Performance Male was raised in DeLand. In 1995 D’Arby adopted the name Sananda Maitreya and legally changed it in 2001. His song Sign Your Name was featured in the movies Up in the Air and Knocked Up.

P.S. A couple of fun connections here; I played high school against DeLand High School on the football field that was used in The Waterboy. That film was directed by Frank Coraci who directed Blended (2014) which was co-written by screenwriter friend Clare Sara. And, of course, there’s always that nice shout-out this blog received a few years ago from the official blog of TomCruise.com.

Related Posts:

Roadkill Ghost Choir (Also from DeLand.)
Clare Sera & ‘Blended‘ (She probably at least drove through DeLand on her way to Hollywood.)


Scott W. Smith

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“Usually the characters are where I start [the writing process] and then I continually ask myself, ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen to this character?’ I love finding the worst things happening at the best moments of a person’s life.”
Paul Haggis

“Trust is the most important thing in any relationship. Never lie to an actor. Often as directors we are asked to lie, because the producer says, ‘you can only shoot for 10 more minutes,’ because of this reason or that. And you want to keep the actor on your side. You don’t want to tell them you can only shoot for 10 more minutes because it’s a budgetary thing. And so you say, ‘no, no it’s this reason’—and it comes back and bites you in the ass each time. You got to go up and say, ‘I’m really sorry, we just took seven hours shooting the other side on her coverage, and now we have to turn around and do yours in 10. That’s what we got.’ And then the actor can deal with that and go, ‘OK.’ So trust is incredibly important. The great thing about hiring really skilled actors is they can take it to a level that you never imagined. And if they trust themselves they’ll discover things in those moments that they didn’t know was going to happen and you didn’t know. And you just hope the camera’s in focus.”
Two-time Oscar-winning producer/director/writer Paul Haggis (Crash)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

Here’s the trailer from Crash (2004) which is full of horrible things happening. BTW–Horrible things=conflict. Followed by a well written, acted and directed scene from Crash.

Related posts:

Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1)
Conflict: What? vs. How?
Neil Simon on Conflict
On What Makes a Director—Kazan
Protagonist = Struggle

Scott W. Smith

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“I think it’s good for a writer to always be an outsider of some sort.”
Canadian-born screenwriter Paul Haggis

“When I’ve spoken at colleges and schools and—after you give the long spiel about writing from the heart, and all that stuff—the writers always ask, ‘What are people looking for?’ And I say, ‘Stop, stop thinking that right now.’ The really great producers don’t look for that anyway. They’re looking for an individual voice. They’re looking for a story that moves them.  And if you start thinking, ‘What do they want?’ and write that, then you’re never going to reach down to that great place.”
Two-time Oscar-winning producer/director/writer Paul Haggis (Crash)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

Note: Haggis co-wrote both Crash and Million Dollar Baby on spec. The end result was a total 13 Oscar nominations, and seven wins for those movies.

P.S. Screenwriting Summer School homework: Take all advice with a grain of salt. Plenty of people  started their careers with Roger Corman by asking what he wanted. Keep in mind that the above quote is from an Oscar-winning screenwriter. But when Haggis was starting out in his career he wrote for The Richie Rich/Scooby-Doo Show and The Love Boat. And despite Billy Ray’s quote (Screenwriting Litmus Test) “Never ever write a movie that you yourself wouldn’t pay to see”—I’m not 100% sure Oscar-nominated writer/directed John Sayles wanted to see Piranha (1978) or Alligator (1980), scripts he worked on early in his career. But as far a spec scripts, I say absolutely write something from the heart that you would want to see (and hopefully one a few other people would also like to see ).

Related posts:

The Outsider Advantage
Finding Your Voice Frank Darabont quote
Finding Your Own Voice Henry Miller quote
The ‘Piranha’ Highway “It’s funny the things you would do when you’re starting out in your career that you probably wouldn’t do the same later.”—Director Joe Dante (Piranha)
Coppola & Roger Corman
Filmmaking Quote #7 (James Cameron) The Canadian-born writer/director who stands at the top of the Hollywood box office.

Scott W. Smith

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“One of the things I’d like to pass on to any aspiring writers out there— very simple litmus test about what you should be writing or what you shouldn’t be writing; Never ever write a movie that you yourself wouldn’t pay to see.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Captain Phillips)
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

“We’re all really lucky if we can make a living in this business, and we’re all overpaid. And it’s really hard to get paid as a screenwriter and to do well. But I’ve never once sat down at the computer because I was being paid. Never. It’s just not enough reason to write. Writing’s just too hard. You gotta have something that inspires you more than the money. Something has to speak to your spirit.”
Billy Ray

P.S. Here we are on day four of the Screenwriting Summer School and one interesting thing I learned from The Dialogue interviews is that both Billy Ray and Susannah Grant, before they became working screenwriters, had early connections with Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Julia). Grant’s aunt was married to Alvin’s brother (Herb Sargent) who was a six-time Emmy-winning writer with Saturday Night Live.  Ray’s father was actually Sargent’s agent. I’m not saying that connection helped their careers—but I’d bet it sure didn’t hurt either career. (Sargent’s first credit was in 1957 and his last one was in 2012 —The Amazing Spider-Man.

Summer School homework: If you can meet a living screenwriter whose career has spanned 50+ years—do it.

Related post: How Much Do Screenwriters Make?

 Scott W. Smith

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“I took a great class taught by Robert McKee—sort of a cliché in Hollywood— but I learned things in there that I use and apply on every script. And even if I’m breaking the rules, it’s helpful to me to know what those rules are. The McKee class taught me a way of thinking about writing, and thinking about structure that has never left me.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)

“For [the screenplay] 102 Minutes, it was the adaptation of a book (102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers—best book I ever read. And this was a case where it was a job I had to have. My agent called me one day and said, ‘Here’s this book you ought to take a look at it, but it’s not coming to you exclusively, if you want this job you’re going to have to go battle with some big time guys to get this job.’ And the second I read it I said OK it doesn’t matter how hard I have to work no one is going to out work me I going to get this job. And when I went in to pitch that story I had a 38 page outline. I had every single scene of that movie laid out…I had respect that there were better known writers who had better credits than mine who wanted that job, too. And the goal was to make the studio feel that they’d be missing out if they hired anyone else.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray (The Hunger Games, Shattered Glass)
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Screenwriting Summer School Homework: Read the five screenplays and watch the five movies that Billy Ray says you need to study in order to understand structure—Broadcast News, Rocky, Ordinary People, Kramer Vs. Kramer, Wizard of Oz. (All stories Ray says in which the main characters are all in horrible situations.) Extra credit: Read McKee’s Story, and 102 Minutes written by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn.

P.S. As far as I know, the script for 102 Minutes hasn’t been produced. If anyone has an update on the status of that project let me know.

P.P.S. Ray’s quote about the McKee class being a cliche is because so many people have taken it over the years. Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman credits McKee’s class in helping him transition from failed novelist to successful screenwriter. But there has been plenty of backlash over the years because of McKee’s popularity. Several working screenwriters have downplayed McKee’s knowledge and/ or influence, one even wrote,To read his [marketing] brochure you’d think that everyone in Hollywood has taken McKee’s course, but the truth is, I don’t know anyone who has.” Guess that writer doesn’t know Goldsman or Ray—perhaps many working screenwriters just don’t admit to taking McKee’s class. I took what I believe was McKee’s first story stucture class in LA (back in, I think, 1984) and he was the first film teacher who showed me how deep the well went. Every writer takes his or her own path, and while McKee may be  too acedemic for some creative people, there is no doubt–because of comments by  Ray and Goldsman–that there are people who benefit from McKee’s teachings.

Related posts:

Writing ‘Rocky’
Art is Work (Milton Glaser)
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)
Billy Ray’s Directing Advice
Screenwriting & Structure (tip #5) Some notes from McKee.

Scott W. Smith


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“When I was 18 I said, ‘Dad I think I want to be a screenwriter.’ He said OK and took me in his office…and pulled out the screenplay for Ordinary People and he said, ‘OK, do this.’ He was saying to me that’s where we’re going to set the bar.”
Billy Ray

“I think UCLA [film school] was helpful. I think there’s no actual substitute for actually writing. And UCLA was helpful in that it encouraged me to start. I was not one of those kids in college who was going out and getting wasted with my fraternity buddies. That always seemed kind of boring to me. I was just in a hurry to hit that mountain top. To write something like Ordinary People, or All the Presidents Men—something that great. And I knew that I was not going to write a screenplay like that sitting at the bar face down in my own vomit.”
Oscar-nominated Screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca

Screenwriting Summer School homework assignment: Read Alvin Sargent’s screenplay for Ordinary People. For extra credit go back and read the book by Judith Guest.

Related posts:
The 99% Focus Rule
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)

Scott W. Smith


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Today is the first day of Screenwriting Summer School. Admission is free and attendance is optional. The text I’ll be using mostly isn’t a text at all, but videos from The Dialogue Series: Learning from the Masters.   The series (81 of the top  screenwriters working today) was produced several years ago and until earlier this month you had to pay for them. Now a chunk of the complete interviews are available for free on The Dialogue Series You Tube channel.

Not many people know about this yet as some of these videos only have 11 views as I type this—most have under 100 views. I’m not a big fan of just tossing videos on this blog, so I’ll try to find one quote or one insight that jumps out at me that I hope you find helpful.

Since I touched on the movie Erin Brockovich this week it seems fitting to have screenwriter Susannah Grant lead off our first summer school class. One take away from this video is when Grant starts a script she has a certain amount of “confusion” and “uncertainty”—something she heard was how Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Julia) was as he started writing a new screenplay.  (And just to show how writers have different processes, check out post Dustin Lance Black Screenwriting Tutorial to see how he works through the confusion and uncertainty  for months before he actually starts typing the script.)

The road Grant took to success had stops at Amherst College (undergraduate) and AFI (grad school). Amhert’s website lists its comprehensive fee (room, board, tuition) for 2014-2015 at $60,400 making a total cost of their four year degree just over $240,000. AFI’s website lists total costs for a first year fellow at $73,594, and the second year adds a thesis credit of $9,218 making the cost of the two year program just over $150,000. So in today’s dollars Grant’s education is in ballpark of $400,000.

I don’t know what Grant’s education costs were back when she went to school in the ’80s— or what scholarships, grants, and/or loans she had—but she sure got a nice return on her investment. But it would be an interesting to hear how Grant would answer if she’d recommend the same route today to a young female writer who had a desire to write screenplays. (Especially in light of the recent WGAW report.) Extra credit to anyone who can find that answer.

Scott W. Smith 



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“Movies aren’t intellectual, they’re emotional. And this one rang a bell…Movies at their best are about moments that you never, ever forget.”
Kevin Costner on Field of Dreams

The above NBC program aired yesterday and was shot last weekend in Dyersville, Iowa. It would be wrong (and maybe un-American) to have a blog title Screenwriting from Iowa and at least not mention the reunion. I don’t know if my production buddy Jon Van Allen took his 4 ton grip truck to Dyersville last weekend, but I think those are his Eco Punch lights in the photo below. (I grabbed these shots from his Facebook page when he was working the reunion for Major League Baseball.)




Jon Van Allen and Bob Costas


P.S. Jon’s based in Iowa and has added to his IMDB credits working on a variety of feature and short films as a grip, gaffer, cameraman and job operator. And if you think Field of Dreams is only thing to come out of Iowa, the Van Allen belts and the NASA Van Allen Probes were named after Jon’s uncle—James Van Allen (1914-2006).

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions
Field of Dreams Turns 20
J.D. Salinger 1919-2010
Screenwriting, Baseball and Underdogs (2.0)
Tinker Field: A Love Letter

Scott W. Smith

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Since this is the last day of spring 2014, I thought I’d do a little spring cleaning and doing something I don’t often do–write two posts in one day. (There may even be a third one later.) But in light of yesterday’s post (Susannah Grant on Failure) by the screenwriter of Erin Brockovich, I thought I’d sneak in this quote I read in last Sunday’s NY Times that was part of a graduation speech at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“Failure is going to be a part of the process. You’re all here because you’re good at not failing, right? This is the culmination of doing a great job at not failing. There are no G.P.A.s after this. There’s going to be lots of setbacks. There’s going to be lots of failures. No one introduces me as the founder of My Mobile Menu, also known as Mmm, because that was the company we started before Reddit, Steve [Huffman] and I started that, and for a year and a half worked on something that went nowhere. But that’s O.K. Failure is an option.”
Alexis Ohanian
The 31-year-old co-founder of Reddit (one of the 50 biggest websites in the United States)
New York Times
Sunday June 15, 2014

P.S. Just to tie in a great filmmaker born in Kenosha, WI—who knew both success and failure in his career —read the post Screenwriting Quote #38 (Orson Welles).

Related post:
The Shakespeare of Hollywood spent part of his childhood not far from Kenosha in Racine, WI.
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

Scott W. Smith


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