Archive for June, 2014

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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‘I love the script I wrote for Erin Brockovich. But even more, I love the movie. I love what it started as, and I love everything that was added to it by all the bright, talented people who came onto the project after me.”
Susannah Grant
Erin Brockovich: The Shooting Script (Newmarket Press)

“Film is, of course, a collaborative art and yes, sometimes those collaborations are like shotgun weddings of mismatched souls; the whole thing goes awry and everyone walks off in a huff vowing never to talk to each other. That can definitely happen.

“But what can also happen is that you end up working with enormously gifted collaborators whose input elevates your writing above and beyond what it would have been had you just been working on your own. Nora Ephron had a great analogy for this, and since I wouldn’t dream of trying to improve on Nora Ephron I’ll simply paraphrase her. She likened it to making a pizza.

“She said the screenwriter makes the dough, the sauce and the cheese and says ‘look I made a pizza’. The director comes along and says ‘hey that’s a great pizza, I wonder what it would be like if we added some pepperoni’. And you add the pepperoni. And then a couple of actors come along and they say ‘you know what else would be really good – some tomatoes and maybe some peppers’. And it goes on like that.

“I have been very lucky to have had some great condiments added to my pizza over the years. I want to share with you one of my favorites, it’s a scene from Erin Brockovich.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)
2013 BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series
(Below is the scene–from 0:00 to 2:21— Grant showed at her lecture. And the quote below is how she drove home her point.)

“Okay, arguably not a poorly written scene. However Aaron Eckhart’s falling to his knees and then on his face at the end, to me, is my favorite moment in the [movie] and that was all him. That is what you get when you work with [talented] people.”

I don’t know if the idea to have Eckhart fall forward came from Eckhart, the director Steven Soderbergh , Richard LaGravense who did uncredited work on the script, or someone else on the crew—but it was a super way to visually show how he’d been shot down by the no nonsense Brockovich. And a nice way to tie up the scene with a touch of humor.

BTW—I found this article where Nora Ephron talks about collaborating and pizza making and gives the flip side of the story, which is sometimes the ingredients added make the pizza worse.

P.S. Last year George Johnson writing in Slate reflected back on the now 20 year old events surrounding PG&E and Hinkley, California stating:

“The Erin Brockovich incident, one of the most famous, is among the many [environmental contaminants] that have been debunked. Hexavalent chromium in the water supply of a small California town was blamed for causing cancer, resulting in a $333 million legal settlement and a movie starring Julia Roberts. But an epidemiological study ultimately showed that the cancer rate was no greater than that of the general population. The rate was actually slightly less.”

The truth is out there somewhere.

Related posts:
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme “I always look for amazing characters who I find are fascinating, charming, flawed, romantic and in trouble.”
Writing ‘Erin Brockovich’
Emotional Autobiography (2.0)
Scriptshadow Secrets Touches on character introductions with Erin Brockovich as a good example.

Scott W. Smith


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“Here’s a secret I have learned in 20 years as a screenwriter. Failure is constant for everyone. And I mean it, everybody fails at this all the time. Not just screenwriters, but I think anyone who tries to illuminate the human experience in an authentic way…I think everyone has the permission to fail a little. In fact I think that freefalling feeling you get right on the knife edge of total disaster may in fact be an essential ingredient to doing anything worthwhile at all. So the question then is: How do you reel yourself back from failure in a public way? How do you fall on the right side of that knife edge? And I guess what you need is a little bit of wisdom and honesty to look at something you’ve written that feels false, or boring or derivative, or in poor taste, or bullshitty, or inauthentic to you, and just plain not good enough. And say to yourself ‘I bet I can do better’.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)
2013 BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series

Related post:

Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Filmmaking Baby Steps “It’s  all baby steps. One foot in front of the other.”—Sidney Lumet
Commitment in the Face of Failure —Michael Arndt quote
‘The Lord of the Rings’ Failure
Spectacular Failures
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

Scott W. Smith

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Just a few hours after my wife booked a flight to Denver yesterday to visit her brother in the hospital she received news that he had died.  A lot of tears last night.

I saw the below photo @UNKScreenwriter this morning and it seemed fitting. And also a way to give a shout-out of thanks to the Unknown Screenwriter who’s the one I found out was responsible for passing my blog on to Script Magazine so it could be named “Screenwriting Website of the Week” just a few days ago.


P.S. Paulo Coelho is a novelist from Brazil who has sold more than 86 million books worldwide. Coelho has a WordPress blog and has over 9 million twitter followers—@paulocoelho. His IMDB credits include one screenplay and several short, TV movies, and features that have been made from his work. And in light of the World Cup being in full swing I should mention that, yes—he is a supporter of the Brazilian national football (soccer) team.

Scott W. Smith


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What’s Your Problem?

Problem solving.

That pretty much sums-up a chunk of our personal and work life —as well as our writing life.

As I write this my sister and I are in the middle of trying to straighten out a mild emergency medication issue my mother has at the assisted living facility she just moved into and my wife is looking for a reasonable last-minute plane ticket to visit her brother in Denver who was just diagnosed with liver cancer and probably won’t be leaving the hospital alive.

I won’t bore you with the other stuff, but chances are you and your family and/or friends have some problem solving that needs addressed today. And like the whack-a-mole fair game, the odds are good that a new set of problems will pop up tomorrow. They all might not be as pressing as liver cancer, a mix up in medication—or living in Iraq as yet another militant groups moves in—but everybody has problems.

Problems are why stories are so important.

“Great stories are about problems. The reason great stories are about problems is because life is about problems, and the great mission of story is to teach us how to analyze, cope with, and solve the problems that stand between us and our dreams—between us and paradise…I’m not sure we really appreciate how much our lives are dominated by problems—things that need to be fixed or solved because we won’t be happy otherwise. Story gets its structure from the problems we encounter in real life—from real serial killers, real disease and disasters, real wars and raging fires…All of the professions, in fact—doctor, lawyer, accountant, plumber, police, psychologist, therapist, auto mechanic, etc—are built around problem solving. They make their living solving problems for other people…Knowing how to manage crisis is the single most important thing we need to be able to do, if we are to survive and succeed. Seeing inside a great story shows us how problems are created and how problems are resolved. Knowing this gives us a working knowledge of both story and life.”
James Bonnet
Stealing Fire from the Gods: The Complete Guide to Story for Writers and Filmmakers
pages 58-59

BTW…Pixar=Problem Solving. Which is probably why Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2) remains one of the all-time most viewed posts on this blog.

P.S. In the time that it took to write this post my wife was able to book a flight for tomorrowand my sister ordered the needed medication that I’ll pick up in half an hour and take to my mom.

Related posts:

Broken Wings and Silver Linings
Everything I Learned in Film School —Conflict
How to Start Your Screenplay (Tip #6) —It’s usually a problem.
Cheap Therapy
Groundhog Day & Cheap Therapy

Scott W. Smith



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