Archive for June, 2014

‘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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It’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other.”
Writer/Director Sidney Lumet (The Verdict)



A few days ago I was thrilled to find out that the Screenwriting from Iowa and Other Unlikely Places blog was named by Script Magazine as Website of the Week.  That’s pretty cool. I’m a long time fan of the magazine and appreciate the nod from Script Mag editor Jeanne Veillette Bowerman and her team. I’ll metaphorically put that on the same shelf as my 2008 Regional Emmy for this blog, the 2010 shout-out from the official blog of Tom Cruise, and most recently in 2014 named as one of Screenwriting Spark’s Top 25 Screenwriting Blogs and by the New York Film Academy’s The Best Screenwriting Blogs.

A nice pay off to six and half years of blogging more than 1850 posts. Baby steps. Anytime my outsider perspective can be mentioned in the same breath as the insider perspectives of Go Into The Story and John August’s blog I feel like I have something to add to the screenwriting and filmmaking conversation. Thanks to all the readers over the years who have provided the motivation to keep this blog going.

Still exploring ways to publish a book/ebook version of the Screenwriting from Iowa greatest hits as well as monetize the blog, but personal projects are fuel by passion. The best advice I can pass on to you in whatever creative endeavor you chose is what the artist Gary Kelley once told me about pro bono work he chooses to do—basically, if you’re doing it for free make sure it feeds the soul.

final draft script writing screenwriting software screenwriting contests filmmaking books

Being named by “Website of the Week” gives me the opportunity to highlight 10 posts where I pulled quotes from Script Mag over the years:

Normal is Not Funny (tip #28)
The Job of Writing
Writing “The Artist” (Part 3)
Writing “The Social Network” (Part 1)
Will Anyone Read Your Script?
“I can’t keep handling this…rejection.”
Screenwriting Quote #172 (Christopher Lockhart)
Writing Actor Bait (Tip #64)
Writing “Back to the Future”
The Billy Wilder Way

And as a bonus here’s a 2009 post—Screenwriting Quote #24— that’s a quote from Script Magazine that gets to the heart of this blog:
“It doesn’t matter if you didn’t go to the best schools, if you’re a kid or in your 50s. It doesn’t matter if, like me, when I moved to Los Angeles in 1981, you come at the business without friends or relatives in the business. It doesn’t even matter if you spent formative years digging carpet scraps out of dumpsters instead of going to film school. The only thing that matters is the quality of the storytelling. More than hearing about techniques, more than discussing the construction of dialogue, I think that’s the important message; that it’s possible.”
Screenwriting J. Michael Straczynski (Changeling script, Babylon 5 creator, story credit on Thor and World War z)
Script Magazine
Volume 15/ Number 1 Pages 38-39

Scott W. Smith


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Editing Baby Steps

It’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other.”
Writer/Director Sidney Lumet (The Verdict)

Baby steps. That’s how I’ve felt the last two weeks as I cut my first project on Adobe Premiere Pro CC. In film school I cut my first 16mm project on an upright Moviola. My first production job I edited on a Steenbeck 16mm flatbed editor. Eventually I started editing video using various equipment until things went digital and then I cut for five years on a AVID, then for a decade on Final Cut Pro, and am now embracing Adobe Premiere.

After few baby steps I’m now on my feet with yet another editing system. The best thing about learning new production software these days is there are so many great online tutorials out there to help speed up the learning curve. I learned a great deal from several lynda.com tutorials on Premiere, and from Larry Jordan’s Premiere tutorial on creativeLIVE as well as Jordan’s book Adobe Production Premium for Final Cut Studio Editors (published by Focal Press which has a lot of helpful media books).

I’m also taking baby steps in learning After Effects. My guess is in the future more and more filmmakers (especially indie filmmakers trying to raise money via crowdfunding) will be rely on programs like After Effects to create quality animatics to help get their films made. Pixar is famous for doing detailed animatics. Here’s a high end animatic/previsualization  from Iron Man 3 where Federico D’Alessando was the lead storyboard artist.

“Frederico brings to the table a level of craft unhead of in film previz. Ask anyone in the storyboarding biz—or just watch their jaws drom when Rico’s stuff previews.”
Writer/director Shane Black (Iron Man 3)

No guarantee that you or your artistic friends can rise up to that level, but take baby steps and see what you can do.

Scott W. Smith

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Filmmaking Baby Steps

“All my career–from television to today–I’ve always felt on the brink of getting something right. Anything. Thirty odd films later I look back and it’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other. And all that’s kept me going is the feeling that as long as I was improving….”
Mystery director

Before I tell you who said that let’s all read that together outloud:
“All my career–from television to today–I’ve always felt on the brink of getting something right. Anything. Thirty odd films later I look back and it’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other. And all that’s kept me going is the feeling that as long as I was improving….” 
Sidney Lumet
As quoted in a blog post by Doug Richardson
Richardson was one of the screenwriters on Bad Boys and early in his career sold his script Hell Bent…And Back in a $1-million deal with Disney. Read about it the New York Magazine article, Million-Dollar Babies.)


As in five time Oscar-nominated writer/director  Sidney Lumet (The Verdict, Prince of the City, Network, Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men). Baby steps.

It’s all baby steps. One foot in front of the other.”


Related posts:

Sideny Lumet (1924-2011)
Sideny Lumet on Theme
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46) Example from The Verdict

Scott W. Smith

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“I think that we make progress by telling our personal stories. The personal story can change the world.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk)

What follows is the best example I’ve ever seen of using note cards to outline a screenplay.

P.S. And while Black’s writing schedule of 8:30AM to 1AM (with breaks to eat and workout)—6 to 7 days a week—is not possible for a writer with a day job, it does show his commitment to the craft and is a great example of “Art is work.” Of course, not all working screenwriters put in 12-14 hour writing days six or seven a week—but then again most don’t have Oscar Awards either.

Related post:
Screenwriting Via Index Cards
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter (Opposing views on ‘personal story.”)
Emotional Autiobiography (2.0) “My work is emotionally autobiographical.”—Tennessee Williams
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)

Scott W. Smith


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“The thing to do is just keep writing. Show it to your girlfriend, boyfriend, or your wife, or whomever, and see if they like it. Then show it to your friends and see if they like it. You keep accumulating these little victories along the way. Pretty soon you’re showing it to an agent, and your agents showing it to a producer, and a producer’s showing it to a director, the director’s showing it to an audience, and it’s just an escalation of these little victories that you have to go through to get to where you’re a successful writer. It’s not a fun process. It’s like homework. I don’t think you can really leapfrog from writing a screenplay to the big premiere with the klieg lights, which I think is the image that ever writer has.”
Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
The New Screenwriter Looks at the New Screenwriter by William Froug
page 179

Related post:
Finding Your Voice “For me, it was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.” —
Writer/director Frank Darabont

Scott W. Smith

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Personal projects are a must for many reasons. Chiefly, they showcase your interests and give the client a better sense of your own personal interests. I am into relationship building with creatives, and understanding what drives and motivates them is important.  In a perfect scenario, I might see someone’s personal work that could tie in nicely with a show or upcoming series on the Channel – knowing their passion helps me understand them as an artist and as just a person.  Personal projects are also entirely YOURS – it says a lot about your own personal aesthetic, and your creative sensibilities… And the last thing I’ll say about personal projects: You’re reading one right now!  This blog is entirely a personal project for me. It’s gotten a little bit of attention which is nice, but most importantly it has been a lot of fun, and something that I do for my own creative happiness. And that’s hugely important for all creatives, to have a place that is theirs to own and control and create.”
Andy Baker, SVP/Group Creative Director at the National Geographic Channels
The Client Blog

Like Baker’s blog, this blog is a personal project I’ve been cranking away on since January 2008—over 1,800 posts. Hopefully there’s been at least one or two posts tucked in there that have helped give some traction to your own personal projects.  (And in the screenwriting world I think spec scripts qualify as personal projects.) May your creativity flourish.

P.S. As a follow-up to another personal project I produced a few months ago, Tinker Field: A Love Letterit not only connected me with various people and groups but was featured in the Orlando Sentinel article by Mark Schlueb— Filmmaker produces video tribute to Tinker Field.

Related Posts:
Personal Projects (Part 1)
Personal Projects (Part 2)
Personal Projects (Part 3)
Personal Projects (Part 4)
Personal Projects (Part 5)
Personal Projects (Part 6)

Scott W. Smith




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