Archive for November, 2014

“If I take the money I’m lost.”
Lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) in The Verdict

One of my all-time favorite screenplays and movies is The VerdictI happened to see it when when it first came out in theaters back in 1982 when I was in film school. And as I revisit it from time to time I just appreciate the multi-layers of the film.

The David Mamet screenplay is listed at 91 on WGA’s list of 101 Greatest screenplays  just after Sidways and before Psycho. It was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, Sidney Lumet’s direction, and Paul Newman lead role.

I think the film follows the Simple Stories/Complex Characters model, but what the film does is shows us a textured glimpse into the legal world. I haven’t read the Barry Reed book which the screenplay is based on, but my guess is Reed did the heavily lifting.

Reed (1927-2002) served in the Army during World War II before getting his law degree at Boston College. He was in private practice in Boston specializing in, according to Wikipedia, medical malpractice, personal injury, and civil litigation cases.

He’d actually been practicing law for 25 years before The Verdict novel was published so he had plenty life experiences to draw on. But there is a simplicity how the screenplay handles all the complexities of law and medical which make the script a wonderful study even for the new screenwriter.

The core the story is about a fading, alcoholic lawyer whose mentor throws him a case that appears to be an easy cash settlement case. One that will help him get back on his feet. That is until Galvin’s conscience kicks in and he decides to try the case for justice to prevail. And at the same time be a personal redemption for himself.

On page 38 of the screenplay Galvin actually verbalizes to a female friend in a bar what I believe is the theme of the story:

“The weak, the weak have got to have somebody to fight for them. Isn’t that the truth? You want another drink?” 

At the end of a Christopher Lockharts’ post Screenwriting 101 he has an excellent detailed outline of The Verdict which is well worth your time to read. Here’s some of his highlights:

LOG LINE: A drunken, washed-up attorney struggles against a goliath law firm to win a medical malpractice suit.



Galvin is introduced as an attorney lower than an ambulance chaser – he chases Hearses. He is a washed-up attorney- glory days long behind him. He is a drunk – who only seems to show signs of life when he is in a bar.


For physical/external storyline: MICKEY jolts GALVIN into consciousness, reminding him that he has five-days to prepare for the ONLY case on his docket. This is a definite money-maker that will ensure GALVIN some much needed income (page 6-7).

For psychological/internal storyline: GALVIN visits his comatose client in the nursing home. He comes to understand the severity and enormity of the case before him (page 8).


GALVIN decides to try the case, “I have to try this case. I have to do it, Mick. I’ve got to stand up for that girl” (page 31). NOTE: This is the point in the story where the goal is establinshed. GALVIN’s goal is to win the case. A MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION is proposed: WILL GALVIN WIN THE CASE? The MDQ is the linchpin of the dramatic narrative – the purpose for which the story is being told. 

P.S. To find a link to most of the 101 WGA top scripts visit Simply Scripts.

Related links:
The End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14) Galvin belongs in the end of the rope club Oscars ’83.
Writing ‘Flight’ Another alcoholic/redemption story with some echoes of The Verdict. And one Lockhart actually had a role in getting produced.
Emotional Evolution/Devolution (Part 2)
Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46) Great example from The Verdict

Scott W. Smith

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 “I write dialogue fairly easily. Plot is a big pain in the ass.”
David Mamet

“The question is how do you get somebody to suspend their disbelief—that’s the central question in drama. And the answer in drama is you have to give them a plot. You have to make them wonder what happens next?…How’s he going to get out of the locked cage? What’s going to happen to Othello? And this goes back to the primal—the essence of the cerebral cortex. How do I get away from the wolf that’s trying to kill me? Which is very, very different than trying to figure out a logical problem. I think it’s absolutely two different parts of the brain…The forest is on fire, how do I get out of here?…It’s hard to write a drama, because it’s hard to write a drama with a plot. Because a plot means that at the end of the drama you have to resolve that problem which gave rise to the drama in such a way that’s both surprising and inevitable as per Aristotle. ”
David Mamet
House of Game  director’s commentary
Excellent site for condensed commentaries: filmschoolthroughcommentaries 

Related posts:
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings (Part 2)
‘There is Only One Plot’
Making Dramatic Writing Dramatic (Tip #98)
“Don’t bore the audience!”

Scott W. Smith

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“I’d been through all the usual jobs of waiter, busboy, night clerk in a hotel, janitor in a nursery, and so forth, and I was running out of those jobs when Paul Sills again offered me a job in Chicago at what was then called Compass, which was an improvisational cabaret. And that’s where I began to work with Elaine May, who I had known before. I was very bad at it for months, and then I became better, and then I became pretty good. Elaine was very good at it.”
Mike Nichols
Film Comment interview with Gavin Smith

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, improv as a structured theatrical art form began in 1955 when David Shepherd and Paul Stills started the ensemble group the Compass Players in Chicago. Many of the alumni later went on to be part of Second City.

Along with Compass Players Ed Asner, Alan Alda, Valerie Harper and among the others was a German born, former pre-med major, and method trained actor named Mike Nichols—who would later go on to be one of the few people to win the rare combination of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards.

When Nichols, who passed away this week, was asked in 2013 if there were any ground rules for improvisations with the Compass Players he replied:

“The greatest rule was [Elaine May’s], ‘when in doubt, seduce.’ That became the rule for the whole group. And looking back, because I did teach acting for a while, we figured out over a long time that there only were three kinds of scenes in the world—fights, seductions, and negotiations.”
Film and theater director Mike Nichols (1931-2014)
Vanity Fair article by Sam Kashner

While not improv scenes, yesterday’s post had the classic seduction scene from The Graduate, and here’s a negotiation scene from that film which Nichols won an Oscar for directing:

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Nichols’ first feature film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? but I seem to recall Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fighting throughout the film so it wasn’t hard to find a fighting scene. (Lots of fighting and 13 Oscar nominations.)

P.S. The well respected acting teacher Del Close—who was once roommates with Gene Wilder at the University of Iowa— was part of the Compass Players before later influencing/teaching Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, John Candy, Tina Fey, and John Belushi. Close also co-authored Truth in Comedy, The Manual of Improvisation.

In the book The Funniest One in the Room:The Loves and Legends of Del Close, Kim Howard Johnson writes, “Many have called Del Close the most important comedy figure of the last fifty years whom you’ve never hear of.”

Scott W. Smith

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“Sometimes the truth is shocking.”
Tennessee Williams

“I did four plays with [Neil Simon]: Barefoot and Plaza Suite and The Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Odd Couple. There were real discoveries. Sometimes we didn’t even know things were funny. Walter Matthau says: ‘You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow.’ ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes. F.U.’ Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar.’ And the audience laughed so hard, he had to sit down and read the New York Post.

“I never understand when people say, ‘Do you do comedy or tragedy?’ I don’t think they’re very much different. They both have to be true, and there isn’t a great play in the world that doesn’t have funny parts to it — as Salesman does, as King Lear does. The whole idea is to reflect life in some way, which means surely you have to have both.”
Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate)
As told to Stephen Galloway/ 2012 Hollywood Reporter

Related Posts:
The Shocking Truth (Tip #84) “The truth is your friend.”—Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nicholas Kazan
Hunting for Truth “Truth is not found in the sunshine, truth is found in the shadows.”—Novelist Paul Lieberman
Telling the Truth=Humor “Watch human behavior. Telling the truth about people will make them laugh.” Phil Foster via Garry Marshall
Insanely Great Endings Screenwriter Michael Arndt puts The Graduate (written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham based on the novel by Charles Webb) on his short list of movies with “insanely great endings.”

Scott W. Smith

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All stories are about transformation, and that change comes with a crushing truth about ourselves.”
Blake Snyder

Just gonna have to be a different man
Changes/David Bowie

Chemistry teacher Walter White playing with fire

Chemistry teacher Walter White playing with fire

Are you ready for a chemistry lesson that will transform your screenwriting—maybe your life? I hope so because in less than 60 seconds Walter White not only gives us a glimpse into chemistry, but one that nails the overarching theme of the Emmy-winning Breaking Bad, and at the same time gets to the heart of storytelling—and perhaps the history of the human race.

Can you really do that in just 60 seconds? Well, I don’t know if you can—but Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan did.

“Breaking Bad” pilot script
Written by Vince Gilligan

You can read the full Breaking Bad pilot script dated 5/27/05 online, but here’s how Bryan Cranston as Walter White spoke the words in the pilot directed by the writer Vince Gilligan.

“Chemistry is—well, technically chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change. Now just think about this, electrons—they change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements they combine and change into compounds. Well, that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant. It’s the cycle; solution, dissolution just over and over and over. It is growth and decay, and then transformation. It is fascinating, really.”
High School chemistry teacher Walter White in Breaking Bad

“It is growth and decay, and then transformation”—that sentence packs a punch. And as we’ve learned in books, TV shows, and movies— as well as world history— that transformation is not always positive.

Related posts:
Breaking Bad’s Beginning
Breaking Bad Y’All
‘The Farmer and the Tweaker’
TV Vs. Feature Films (Vince Gilligan)
Screenwriting Quote #190 (Vince Gilligan)
Writing ‘Water Cool Moments’
Paying for Transformation (Tip #65)
‘Groundhog Day’ and Cheap Therapy

Scott W. Smith

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“I don’t want to do a film unless I’ve got a chance to create a mood and an atmosphere, which is what I think my job is. Anybody can photograph a film — you can just put lights on and make an exposure. I want the challenge of creating an atmosphere and the right frame for the director.”
Two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis (1917-2007)
Interview with David Morgan on shooting Cape Fear (1991)

In Jim Mercurio’s DVD Complete Screenwriting From A to Z to A-List he has a section where he mentions that screenwriters should think like filmmakers, meaning some of the key roles people physically do working on a film—the director, the director of photography (DP), and the editor.

Mercurio like many screenwriting instructors says that you shouldn’t write camera direction overtly like “Using a 200mm lens…” or “a Stedicam follows the cop down the stairs…”, but that there are ways to cheat your vision in your screenplay.

“One of the most effective ways to get at mood and tone is with light. In fact, here are a couple of sentences from the first Mission Impossible, just little pieces of action description where everything is done with light;

A bare bulb shines down the contents of a shabby hotel room.

The American Embassy glitters beside the Vitava River.

‘Glitters’ is the suggestion of light…I think about the scene in Cape Fear where Max (Robert De Niro) is harassing them (Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis) and he’s smoking a cigar, and the smoke is wafting up with the light through it—now that’s a DP. That’s how a DP thinks; ‘How can I make this visual?’ ‘How can I make this beautiful?’ ‘How can I tell this story with light?’

Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio

Here are some more screenwriting examples I found piggybacking on Mercurio’s ideas which could be see as any combination of the roles of the director, the DP/cinematographer, or editor.

Example from St. Vincent screenplay by Theodore Melfi that suggests a wide angle lens:


School pickup. Oliver’s an ant amongst the THRONGS OF KIDS waiting for a ride home.

Example of camera position from Gone Girl screenplay by Gillian Flynn:


We see the back of  AMY DUNNE’S HEAD, resting on a pillow.

Example of a close-ups inferred from The Verdict screenplay by David Mamet:

Gavin twists tea bag around a spoon to extract last drops of tea. His hand movers to his felt pen lying on the table. He moves his hand to the paper, open at the obituary section. We SEE several names crossed out. He circles one funeral listing.

Suggestion of a tracking shot from Nebraska by Robert W. Nelson.


Woody walks down the sidewalk toward the BUS STATION. David pulls up alongside him in his car and rolls down the window.

Use of color from Promised Land script by John Kransinski and Matt Damon:


In the first minutes of a cool Spring day we see a idyllic landscape of blood orange colored sky hanging above the tree covered mountains of McKinely, a small town at the foot of a mountain.

Here’s a description from The Artist screenplay by Michael Hazanavicus which could be done with a complicated crane shot or a sequence of wide, medium, and close-up shots.


There’s hardly anyone in the theater. The people that are there look bored more than anything. At the back smoking a cigarette George takes the failure on the chin.

And circling back around to lighting, here’s an example of getting at mood and tone on an exterior shot from the Flight script by John Gatins:

                                       WHIP (CONT’D)
                         C’mon sweetheart, show me the sun.

Suddenly, clouds –we see a beam of light breaking through the black 12 o’clock high. A God ray.

And in Flight you could even say that ray of light is symbolic of the overarching theme of the entire movie where Whip (Denzel Washington) moves from darkness to light, from living a lie to living the truth.

P.S. The above Cape Fear (1991) clip, written by Wesley Strick (reportedly 24 drafts) and directed by Martin Scorsese, shows how cinematographer Freddie Francis employed a few lighting cheats himself.  Can you see the cheats in this shot taken from that scene?


I’m no Freddie Francis, but I’ve shot several short films and won a Regional Emmy for location lighting so let me take a guess at the lighting cheats in the above shot of De Niro.

The key light appears to be coming low because it’s brighter on his shirt and lower face than on his forehead and hair meaning the light is coming low from inside the car. (Something like a Kino Flo Mini-Flo would do well if you were shooting this scene today.) It’s a cheat because car dash lights (even on old Mustangs) aren’t bright enough to light up a faces. (At least with the older technology Francis was using. (I have used my iPhone flashlight and pushed the ISO higher for similar effect on videos I’ve shot digitally.)

In the background there is separation in the tree and the wall background so there are at least two lights there. Maybe more and gelled (or a TV) to add some color. And there is a slash of light hitting the side of the car and mirror. And finally when De Niro puffs on the cigar that is back lit which could be yet another light or spill from one of the other lights hence doing double duty.

All that work done by a film team for a series of shots that are on screen for a total of about 10 seconds. Think of the layers of just De Niro sitting in his car: cars moving in the foreground and background, he’s smoking a cigar which adds some movement as the smoke blows in the air adding visual interest, and there are extras walking in the background. That challenge for the screenwriter is to peel back the layers of their story using a few words and sentences.

Francis won two Best Cinematography Oscars (Glory, Sons and Lovers) and also four BAFTA Best Cinematography awards (The Elephant Man, The French Lieutenant’s Woman). And I should mention that he also shot a film in Iowa—David Lynch’s The Straight Story.

P.P.S. To see how editors cheat go to the 1:56 mark of the above video clip of Cape Fear and you’ll notice that the car that crosses the frame is a Chrysler convertible, but a few frames later on the closer up shot there is a SUV or mini van. It’s an intentional jump cut to add tension/disharmony to the scene.

Related posts:

10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)
Cinematography and Emotions
Cinematography and Emotions (Part 2)
Lighting ‘Friday Night Lights’
Shooting ‘Chinatown’
Professor Jerry Lewis (The Total Film-Maker)
David Lynch in Iowa
Study the Old Masters
Cinematographer Roger Deakins

Helpful link:  ASC, The Society of Cinematographers

Scott W. Smith



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Happy 80th Birthday Garry Marshall

Writer/Director Garry Marshall (Happy Days, Pretty Woman) was born on this day 80 years ago.

Back in 2012 I was in Dallas/Ft. Worth on a video shoot and I came across a used bookstore that had a copy of Garry Marshall’s Wake Me When It’s Funny (written with Lori Marshall).

I wasn’t sure how well received advice from someone in their late 70s would be on this blog even if they had more than 50 years of film and TV experience.

At the end of September of 2012 I started a few Marshall-related posts and they were so popular I ended up filling the following month with posts based on Marshall’s experiences—and to date, that month of Garry Marshall posts has remained my most viewed month of posts in the seven year history of this blog.

Here are all the Garry Marshall-inspired links:

Flaming Rejection “Be prepared at all times for rejection, even after you break in…”
Tasting & Smelling Comedy (Tip#61)
Telling the Truth=Humor
Offensive & Defensive Writing (Tip #62)
Garry Marshall’s ‘Gentile Hilarity’ “I always wanted to direct positive, uplifting films that reached for the heart rather than the mind, the emotions rather than the intellect.”
Writing & Rewriting ‘Pretty Woman’ (Part 1)
Writing & Rewriting ‘Pretty Woman’ (Part 2)
‘The Power of Gentleness’
Screenwriting Quote #171 (Garry Marshall)
Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 1)
Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 2)
Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 3)
Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 4)
Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 5)
Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 6)
Garry Marshall’s Chicago Detour
Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 7)
Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 8)
Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 9)
Garry Marshall & James Bond
Garry Marshall Directing Tip (Part 10)
Jumping the Shark
Happy Days in Hollywood
Wanted: Writers with No Lives
The ‘Stuckinna’ Plot
The Odd Monks
Garry Marshall Survivor 

Happy 80th Garry Marshall.

Scott W. Smith

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“There’s a great scene in Annie Hall when Alvin and Annie—I think they’re at a party and on a balcony—and they have some small talk and every time they small talk a subtitle comes up to say what they’re really saying…this is exactly what subtext is.”
Jim Mercurio
(On the scene below written by Woody Allen)

“There is great pleasure in having and figuring out that what a person is saying is not exactly what they mean. That’s what you have to fight for. The rule is have fun. Make sure if you know what the beat is that you’re trying to hit—the intention of the character, find a clear way to communicate it that actually doesn’t look like it. And that’s where you can have some fun.”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

Related posts:
Writing Subtext (Tip #43)
Visual Subtext (Tip #39
The Making of Woody Allen in 10 Simple Steps
Screenwriting Quote #39 (Woody Allen)

Scott W. Smith


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I’m OK—You’re OK?

To paraphrase Jim Mercurio, action descriptions at the beginning of scenes are less about literary prose and more about establishing the characters in the scene, mood, tone,  pointing out important props, and giving the essence of the space:


Sean’s office is comfortable. Books are stacked against the wall. There is a PAINTING on the wall behind Sean. Sean is seated behind a desk. Lambeau sits in a chair in the back of the room, next to Tom. A long beat passes, they wait.
From the Good Will Hunting screenplay
Written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck


I don’t think in the Good Will Hunting screenplay that the 1969 book I’M OK—YOU’RE OK is mentioned but it’s prominently (yet subtly) featured in the background of a key part of the movie when psychologist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams)  has a tense (and unconventional) introductory counseling session that ends with Maguire’s hand clutching the throat of Will Hunting (Matt Damon) and a threat.

The whole subtext of the scene could be called “I”M NOT OK—YOU’RE NOT OK.” You could even say it’s one of the themes of the entire movie. Heck, I imagine a history professor or theologian could make the case that that’s the entire problem of the human race.

But my point is that visual cue is not in the screenplay. Perhaps it was added by set decorator and moved into places by the director. That’s how the collaborative process works. But in the screenplay Matt Damon and Ben Affleck only needed to write the basic setting description that includes what’s core to the scene.

“Books, painting and a chair that’s pretty much all we need. Basically later on we’ll learn what books there are. We’ll learn the details. But the books, the painting, and the photos, and the chair, that’s where everything in the scene happens. Everytime [Will Hunting] gets uncomfortable he sits down and gets up. Or if he’s trying to get under his skin he looks around and finds a book or find a picture. And eventually the painting is the thing that gets under his skin. I don’t need to know the details of the book until later, I don’t need to know what the painting is yet, but it’s all there now and we’re not going to spend five or six lines giving those details. Those will come out later.
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

Here’s how the scene plays out:

P.S. I saw Good Will Hunting three times when it first came out in theaters and imagine I’ve seen it a dozen times now, but had never noticed the I’m Ok, You’re Ok book in the scene until Mercurio pointed it out on his DVD.

Related posts:
Descriptive Writing -Pt 5, Setting (Tip#26) “It’s also important to remember it’s not about the setting anyway—it’s about the story, it’s always about the story.”—Stephen King
Two Lines of Action “I try never to go longer than two lines of action.” Sheldon Turner
Writing ‘Good Will Hunting’

Scott W. Smith

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“Think about different ways of telling your story without dialogue…Try to find visual ways to tell your story.”
Jim Mercurio

Dr. Grant: Are you sure the raptors are contained?
Dr. Sattler: Unless they figure out how to open doors.
Jurassic Park, written by Michael Crichton and David Koepp

“In Jurassic Park in the kitchen scene where the velociraptors are chasing the kids, there’s no way the kids should escape velociraptors, but they’ve got home field advantage. Everything about the kitchen is used against the velociraptors. There’s doors and they have claws. There’s stainless steel which has a mirror-like reflection but it’s also slippery. And the tile floor is slippery, too. And there’s a freezer that has a weird handle. So all these things together are how these kids are able to escape the velociraptors. And basically [the kids] have home field advantage, it’s using that location in a clever way.”
Filmmaker/teacher Jim Mercurio  ()
Complete Screenwriting: From A to Z to A-List DVD course

P.S. There are even a few more layers to that classic Spielberg directed scene where the filmmakers used the location and props to add conflict and drama:
1) The first thing the kids do when they enter the kitchen is turn off the lights again using what’s at hand for survival, giving a horror like lighting to the scene. (But the DP used small windows placed on high on the kitchen set to allow light to spill into the kitchen so it’s not pitch dark.)
2)  It’s used against the kids where the ladle falls to the ground altering the velocirapors of their location.
3) The round window in the kitchen door adds drama and a touch of humor when the velociraptor  breathes on the window and then peeks through the window and his own condensation.
4) Once the velociraptors figure out how to use the handle on the door, it’s one of those heavy doors that closes automatically so there is a little push back the raptor as to figure out.
5) The raptors make a loud noise which reverberates through the kitchen full of reflective surfaces and the young boy covers his ears.
6) After the raptor fully enters the kitchen, what’s worse than being hunted by a raptor in a kitchen? Being hunted by two raptors in a kitchen!
7) At one spot it actually looks like another visual humor cue where we see just the raptors claws on the tile floor and it looks to me as if there is a little tap, tap, tap of the claw as if to say, “Now where are those little kids I’d like to eat?”
8) The tail of the raptors is used to push over many pots and pans that crash on top of the kids and then onto the hard floor.
9) The young girl uses the ladle to distract the raptors because they are close to the boy and he is frozen in terror.
10) A door jams in one of the places where the young girl tries to hide.
11) Kitchens tend to have ice, right? The filmmakers use that as well.
12) What the filmmakers didn’t use: A round door handle on the kitchen door which would have prevented the raptors from entering in the first place. Of course, they could have and raptors could have just pounded the door down making for a dramatic entrance. But there was a nice set-up/pay off by playing off the line, “Unless they figure out how to open doors.”

Related posts:
Visual Conflict
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46)
Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)
Everything I learned in Film School (Tip #1)

Scott W. Smith

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