Archive for March, 2015

“Our film project, The Emperor of All Maladies, is about as close to the bone as filmmaking gets for me.”
Filmmaker  Ken Burns

“More will die from cancer over the next two years than died in combat in all the wars the United States has ever fought, combined.”
Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies
PBS documentary based on the book by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee

The above documentary directed by Barak Goodman will air on PBS the next three nights (March 30, 31, April 1) and I’m sure be available on DVD afterwards. As someone who personally just finished chemo and radiation treatment for cancer earlier this year I plan on watching the entire documentary. But few people are not affected in one way or another by the disease.

Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times wrote of the doc; “The result is possibly the least live-tweetable six hours of television you will ever see and also among the most important.”

Because cancer is a part of life it has popped up in many films over the years including Love Story, A Walk to Remember, My Life, The Fault in Our Stars, and Kurosawa’s Ikiru. Two additional films I’d of special note are Terms of Endearment (1983) where James L. Brooks walked away with three Oscar Awards (producing, screenwriting, and directing), and The Doctor (1991).

Related posts:
Filmmaking Quote #33 (Ken Burns)
Ken Burns on 1+1=3
Burns, Baseball and Flawed Characters “In the United States words are medicine.”—Ken Burns
Christmas & Cancer
Screenwriting & Cancer

Scott W. Smith


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Bourne Again

“The idea of the movie came out of the very first meeting, was if I don’t know who I am, and I don’t know where I come from, I can only identify myself by the things I do, know how to do. What if I find out that all the things that I know how to do are bad?”
Screenwriter Tony Gilroy speaking about The Bourne Identity

jason bourne

“The Bourne Identity” Opening


I’ve never read any of the Robert Ludlum novels centered around Jason Bourne—and as it turns out neither has screenwriter Tony Gilroy. Which is interesting since Gilroy is credited as co-screenwriter all three movies featuring Matt Damon as Jason Bourne.

Gilroy says that only the first ten minutes of The Bourne Identity (2002) are Ludlum’s and after that the character and story head off in a different direction. (The term Gilroy uses for explaining his work on the Bourne movies is “fig leaf adaptations.”)

One of Gilroy’s screenwriting rules is to start small and specific. As he said in his 2013 BAFTA talk,  “Something small that has access, that feels like it in association with has access to something larger. It can be a character, it can be a moment in time, it can be a situation between two people, it can be a point in history, it could be anything but something really, really small, something very specific.”

Here’s a real life example of how Gilroy started with something small (and something not a part of the Ludlum novels) that became a core part of the first three Bourne films.

“But day one, literally day one, on Bourne, in my office waiting for [director] Doug Liman to show up for the next day’s craziness, I’m there sketching away, and a scene came up…I don’t know where it goes in the movie, I don’t know… maybe I know who he’s talking to, I’m not really sure. But this scene is where what the movie’s about and this sort of lighthouse kind of scene co-exist together. 

The movie that we ended up building, and the idea that there’s that morning, and the idea that’s underlying this scene is if I think I’m good I’m sort of re-born – Bourne, right there you have it, built into the name. I’m fresh, and dewy eyed, and I think I’m good, and everything I find out about myself is bad, and that’s not who I feel I am. 

God, that goes from everything from Joseph Campbell straight through to the New Testament and beyond. It’s really the epic, crazy thing, and this stupid little scene – it’s not dazzlingly shot, it’s just a really simple scene, it’s beautifully, simply acted. But this scene contains the genetic DNA that will ride all three Matt Damon Jason Bourne films.”
Writer/director Tony Gilroy
2013 BAFTA Screenwriting Lecture

The first three Bourne films connected with a world wide audience to make over one billon dollars at the box office.

P.S. If you’d like to see Matt Damon as Jason Bourne again, a new film has been announced for 2016. But at this point it will be the first Bourne film without Gilroy connected to the project.

Related posts:
Hope & Redemption
‘The Verdict’ Revisited
Sheldon Turner on Theme (and Resilience)
Emotional Evolution/Devolution
Writing ‘Rocky’ “I was obsessed with the idea of personal redemption.” —Sylvester Stallone
Pity, Fear, Catharsis (Tip #69)When you release the character from the jeopardy or whatever the situation they’re in, the audience experiences a catharsis.—Julian Friedmann
Screenwriting & Slavery to Freedom
Screenwriting Like a Chemist “It is growth and decay, and then transformation.”—Walter White

 Scott W. Smith

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“I’ve ignored most of the things I’m going to tell you tonight, which is why this lecture is for me as much as you, to remind me of what an asshole I am for ignoring my own rules. And I’m serious about that.”
Tony Gilroy

My last post covered screenwriter, novelist, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright  Frank D. Gilroy’s rule for writing, and today will look at what his son Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity, Michael Clayton) says are his rules for screenwriting.

The following quotes are pulled from his 2013 BAFTA talk (an abridged version of the video is above and the entire transcript can be found here).

Gilroy’s background before selling his first screenplay at 30-years-old includes growing up surrounded by screenwriters who were friends of his father (including William Goldman), leaving home at 16 to be a musician,  working “a lot of odd jobs” including tending bar for six years, and he studied and wrote screenplays “until he figured it out.”

“If there’s any single theme from tonight that would be of value, I would want you to leave here being reminded, or confirmed, that this is imaginative work. We make stuff up and it’s not magic mushroom ring, Stonehenge special, but we make stuff up, there is a level of romance and imagination to this that is not found in any screenwriting book or in any seminar or in any class or anything like that….You cannot teach someone to be imaginative. You can’t. You can kill it, you can sure kill it. And it can be trained and you can magnify it and do all kinds of things, but you can’t teach it.”

“We need a spark, we need some place to start, and for me – for us, me will be us now – we need something really small. Small is good, small is really, really good for me. Something small and very, very specific. The big ideas don’t work. It’s death if you say ‘I want to do a movie about class warfare’ or ‘I want to do a movie about corporate malfeasance.”

“I want to do a movie about a fixer, a fixer in a law firm, well that’s a fascinating… that’s a pretty interesting place to start. And then what do I do? I literally play with it. I sit at my desk, I sit in front of the keyboard, and I just run with it. I write around it. The analogue is painting, really, with charcoal and pencil, and it’s sketching, really, really sketching. It goes up for an hour, it goes up for a month, or I keep coming back to it [and] when it stops getting interesting I stop playing with it. But it really is play, and it’s almost entirely dialogue. It’s stuff that happens, it’s like chit- chat, and ‘what if they do this?’ but I’m really swinging free and I’m really playing with things. My office is just littered, my life is littered with…you see the auto graveyard where all the parts of all the cars stretch out to the horizon, of all the broken toys. Well, that’s what this is, you’re taking this little piece of idea and playing with it.”
(Note: Gilroy’s Michael Clayton starred George Clooney as a corporate fixer.)

“And really what has to happen is the mess really has to stop, it really has to stop someplace, and we have to say to ourselves ‘where is the movie? What is the movie? I have all this stuff, I’m building this whole world, I need to know what the movie is about’. And at a certain point you cannot pass go without doing this. You can get, if you’re in the system, you can get seduced past this because sometimes you’re coming up with a bunch of groovy stuff.”

“Alright so we have an idea, we know what the movie’s about and we’ve made sort of a mess, but we’re going to make a much, much bigger mess now. And we’re going to make a world, we have to make a whole world around all this, and that’s what this is. And that’s the sort of second unteachable part of this process. If you can’t teach people to be imaginative, you certainly also can’t teach them to know things that they don’t know.”

“There is one thing that you have to know, that is a deal breaker on all of it. You have to know human behavior, you cannot pass go, you cannot move forward, you are dead stopped right here, right now, if you do not know human behavior and the quality of your writing is absolutely capped at your understanding of human behavior. You will never write above what you know about people. The writers that I’m talking about that have made a great living, without writing action, are experts in human behavior…The quality of your writing will be a direct reflection of your understanding of the contradictions and complexities of human behaviour‘the quality of your writing will be a direct reflection of your understanding of the contradictions and complexities of human behavior.

“So now we have to write an outline. I’ve heard writers over the years say ‘oh, I don’t like to do outlines, cause it’s too constricting’. I think they’re completely wrong, if you go onto screenplay form and try to figure out your movie it’s like putting on a tuxedo to go to a diner or something. I don’t know what you’re doing, I don’t want to be in screenplay form until the bitter end, and I’ll get to that at the very end of this thing. I do not want to want to put on my tuxedo until the very end. I want to continue to make a mess, I want to write an outline now. I want to write the movie. The faster we can do it the better. I’ve done it in as little as four days…These documents are 30, 50, 60, they can be 80 pages long, but it is the whole movie…it’s like every scene, that’s what we want. We want this loose, ugly, but really proper version of the movie altogether.”

“You can have big ideas in the shower, but not typically about plotting. I have to sit down, literally and it sounds so stupid— I have to sit down at the keyboard and talk to myself. I have, I don’t know, thousands of pages of files of me talking to myself in some sort of weird Socratic conversation about ‘okay, if he does this, what does that mean? And what will ABC do? He can do this or that or this’. And then ‘oh my God I’ll write a scene and dialogue will push me forward for the plotting’. But it’s not easy pickings, that, if it’s done really well.”

“If you know the ending (which is critical), you not only have the sense of completion and you have the sense of roundness and you have the sense of satisfaction and you know that it really works, you‘re also not wasting time. Because everything writes into the ending. And all the pages that you wasted time on in the first 30 or 40 pages – and I don’t know how many writers are here tonight but you know exactly what I’m talking about. Those 30 or 40 pages, the first 40 pages of the movie that you spent months on, well they are vulnerable by the time you get to the end, because they are just dead meat. Those 40 pages, they’re going to be 15 pages, they’re cooked, they seemed so important at one time as you were getting lost. They’re not that important anymore, and you need to know that they’re not important.”

“So we’re at the end, and now it really is time, now I’ll go to screenplay, now whatever Final Draft or Movie Magic or whatever it is, and now it really is fun. For me, it’s when it’s fun. It’s when it’s precise. The other great thing about having this document is when you go to work every day you can build up a momentum, you know what you’re supposed to do today, and all you’re doing it making it better than you had in the outline before. You’re cutting things out all the time. I like things to be very pretty, I’m obsessed with my scripts being exquisitely pretty, and I’m a crazy freak for how they look and how they lay out and how they’re paginated. I use that as a way of editing and cutting. I use it as a way of keeping myself interested, but there are times when everything seems perfect and a speech breaks and I don’t like the way it breaks into another page. I know there’s a line, I know there’s three lines, something’s got to go in that script. I’m not kidding you, I will edit it down. And if you do that 4 or 5, or 15 times, it’s shocking what comes out.” 

So there you go, free advice from a A-list successful, working screenwriter. Granted he  prefixed his talk by saying he ignored most of what he was going to tell them. Maybe he was being contradictory and maybe what he meant was he only found success when he followed his rules.

P.S. Speaking of rule breaking, track down Gilroy’s script for Michael Clayton in which he not only opens with voice-over and large chunks of scene description and dialogue—but he does so for four straight pages. For that screenplay he was nominated for both Oscar and BAFTA awards.

Related posts:
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)—John Logan
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter—Michael Arndt
The 99% Focus Rule
Dustin Lance Black Screenwriting Tutorial

Scott W. Smith

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Frank D. Gilroy’s ‘Rule’

“What have you done for me recently? That’s part of the American ethic, and one just accepts it. Nothing’s old in America…It’s very tough, and if you start thinking that people owe you something, you can go around feeling very sorry for yourself.”
Writer/director Frank D. Gilroy

You can file this under, “The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

When you see the name Gilroy on a screenwriting blog the odds are good you first associate it with Oscar-nominated writer/director Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) or Oscar-nominated screenwriter Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawlers).

But let’s put Frank D. Gilroy in the spotlight, because before he had two Hollywood screenwriter sons (and other—John Gilroy— who is two-time BAFTA-nominated editor) the elder Gilroy had quite a run. After serving in the Army during World War II he studied at Dartmouth College where he wrote his first plays (and ran the school newspaper) and then attended the Yale Drama School.

His play The Subject Was Roses opened on Broadway in 1964 and ran for 834 performances, and won the Drama Critics Award, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the Pulitzer Prize. (The play was also compared to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.)

The 1969 film version of The Subject Was Roses won actor Jack Albertson an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. While never reaching the level of success of that early play, the now 89-year-old Gilroy has written plays, novels, TV programs, and feature films for six decades. (He published a Kindle single just last year.)  I don’t know if he ever passed on writing advice to his sons—say when Tony and Dan were writing The Bourne Legacy—but here’s some advice from him I found in an old interview:

“The best rule I ever heard is: Please yourself, and hope you’ll please someone else. I know no other way to operate. I’m very open to opinion. In a movie, particularly, you have to be. I’ll change anything is someone can convince me that they have a better line, a better thought. But my starting point is always that I have to please myself. It stops you from going crazy, because to try to guess what critics are going to like, or what the public’s going to like, would be suicidal. I’d have nothing to cling to…Everything you do, if you do it wholeheartedly, changes you. And in the midst of changing, you should be very careful what you commit yourself to.”
Frank D. Gilroy
Interview with Dennis Brown published in Shoptalk 

P.S. If you go to Amazon you’ll find many of the elder Gilroy’s books and plays including a book on writing— Love and/or Money: Outtakes from a Life Spec, the Early Years which I’ll have to get. He writes in the introduction:  “As the man introducing me at the Community College goes on about my loftier achievements and awards, the audience (kids from families straining so they can get a higher education) openly yawns. Scrapping my prepared remarks, I tell them 90 percent of my career has been failure. I’ve been dead broke six times and if I don’t sell something soon it’ll be seven.”

On the cover of that book there’s this quote from William Goldman, “The Best book on becoming a playwright since Moss Hart’s Act One.”

Scott W. Smith





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My St. Patrick’s Day Special on the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1952) :

“I spent a year in Professor Baker’s famous class at Harvard. There, too, I learned some things that were useful to me—particularly what not to do. Not to take ten lines, for instance, to say something that can be said in one line.”
Eugene O’Neill
The American Magazine
November, 1922, page 32

And also from that article:

“And here is an interesting fact: O’Neill has a regular habit of work. The craving for freedom, for the indulgence of his own desires, which controlled him in his early manhood, is subordinated now to the good of his work. He, who used to be a rebel against routine, voluntarily follows a routine now, in this one direction. Like the rest if us, he has found that he must follow a regular habit of work if he is to accomplish anything.”
Mary B. Mullett
The Extraordinary Story Of Eugene O’Neill

P.S. The professor that Eugene O’Neill referenced was George Pierce Baker with whom O’Neill began studying under in the fall of 1914. O’Neill said of Baker,  “The plays I wrote for him were rotten… Yes, I did get a great deal from Baker–personally. He encouraged me–made me feel it was worth while going ahead.”

Scott W. Smith

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Yesterday I visited the Kennedy Space Center for the third time in my life and I realized my visits mirrored three important eras of space travel. The first being an elementary school trip in the 70s during the Apollo era, a visit in the 90s during the shuttle era, and yesterday’s trip which is in the infant stages of the future of space travel; A mix of government and private enterprise that includes hopes of sending humans on a mission to Mars and space tourism.

But whatever the future brings in space travel, we can be sure of one thing—there will be more stories to tell.


Here are three movies and one TV miniseries that captures the spirit and history of NASA and space travel.

Scott W. Smith

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“I think I’ve developed a special talent for getting access to people. My wife is a family therapist, and she has said that when you first meet a subject, if your gaze is an empathetic one, you’re all set. And that process of empathy should continue all the way through the therapy. That’s precisely the basis for my own way of working with subjects.”
Documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles (Grey Gardens, Salesman)
Interview with Rachel Horovitz

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You Are Special

For those of you who read my last post—You Aren’t Special”—and found screenwriter Malcolm Spellman’s words offensive, bitter, and/or negative I hope this almost G-rated post balances things out.

You are my friend
You are special
You are my friend
You’re special to me.
You are the only one like you.
Like you, my friend, I like you.
Mr. Rogers

And here’s a word of encouragement from an Oscar-winning screenwriter:

“Here’s my unsolicited advice to any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading this: Don’t ever agonize about the hordes of other writers who are ostensibly your competition.  No one else is capable of doing what you do.”
Diablo Cody
The Shooting Script

Perhaps the way to synthesize Spellman and Cody’s quotes (and Mr. Rogers’ song) is to look at Spellman like J.K. Simmons as the verbally abusive conductor in Whiplash pushing his drummers to be the best they can be, and Cody as the Robin Williams character/teacher in Dead Poet’s Society—or better yet, the high school music teacher in Mr. Holland’s Opus.

No one would dispute that the film business is a tough one. You probably have a few friends and family members telling you how special and creative you are, so just to balance that out read the article From Hollywood To Homeless by screenwriter Todd Farmer (Drive Angry) that is one of the most brutally honest things you’ll read about the realities of pursuing a screenwriting career.

“There has always been this strange bit of mathematics associated with Hollywood. Writing a screenplay = Rich screenwriter. Sure it happens. But it’s by no means the norm. I never sold that million dollar spec. My years have always been feast or famine. I’ve been paid more than fair. And I’ve been paid less than fair. As I suspect is the case with most working screenwriters. We just don’t talk about it. We can’t. One, to speak out runs the risk of being branded difficult. We don’t want that. And two, Hollywood likes to hire success. Therefore it’s important we appear more successful than we are. You may not be aware of this but Hollywood promotes lying. Pretending we are more successful than we are. Younger than we are. Smarter than we are. In this department, actors really have it bad but it’s an industry wide challenge.”
Todd Farmer

(Farmer also gives some helpful hints on how to live out of your car should that need ever arise.)

And a fitting way to round this post out comes from director David Fincher—and one that I’m sure Malcolm Spellman would appreciate. (H/T to @mattheweporter .) I think the Fincher quote is originally from the book 5o Greatest Interviews by Nev Pierce.


Related Posts:
What’s it Like Being a Struggling Writer In L.A.?
How Much Do Screenwriters Make?
“I Can’t Keep Handling This…Rejection” Quote from a now Oscar-winning screenwriter
Flaming Rejection “Be prepared at all times for rejection.”—Garry Marshall
Perseverance & Persistence (Tip #99)

Related link:
Scriptnotes, Malcolm Spellman, a Study in Heat —Worth listening to the whole podcast or reading the transcripts to take in Spellman’s quote “You aren’t special” in full context. He’s a working writer and mentors other writers so he wasn’t being fatalistic in terms of pursuing screenwriting.

Scott W. Smith

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Screenwriting pep talk for the day:

Here’s the real cautionary tale; We all think we’re special. Every screenwriter I know thinks they’re better than all the [other] screenwriters. And it doesn’t mean sh**. And your heat doesn’t mean sh**. And you aren’t special.

“I consider myself a ‘real writer,’ meaning I do something interesting and unique on the page and people seem to respond to it. Still that doesn’t mean sh**. You have to somehow understand that in a weird way, as special as you are, you aren’t special. 

“Real quick stat. The average career for a screenwriter, I believe, is five years. But you know what that five years is? It’s you sell a spec. You get hot. You flame out. And you’re done.”
Malcolm Spellman (@malcolmspellman)
Scriptnotes podcast with John August & Craig Mazin
Episode 185: Malcolm Spellman, a Study in Heat

Fortunately for Spellman, he survived being the hot new talent in 2002 after his script Core landed him an agent at ICM, survived selling that first spec script (that never got produced), survived a four-year dry spell after the heat faded, and eventually became a writer/producer for the hot new TV show Empire.

So let’s do the math, back up seven years before 2002 (when Spellman began as he said, “trying to learn to write screenplays on a professional level’), until 2015 and it’s been a 20-year journey for Spellman to be sitting in the nice position he’s in today.

It takes a little time sometimes.

In the meantime there is something special about Empire; ratings for one.

“Fox’s Empire is shattering Nielsen records as the only series to rise in the ratings for seven consecutive weeks since its premiere.”
Gary Levin, USA Today
‘Empire’ strikes back as season’s hottest show

P.S. My own very, very loose connection to Empire is a production friend I hired over a decade ago, Lizzy Leigh, worked as an extra on the pilot of Empire when it was shot in Chicago last year.

Related posts:
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
Bob DeRosa’s “Shortcuts”
First Screenplay, Oscar—Precious The 25-year journey of Geoffrey Fletcher
Perseverance & Persistence (Tip #99)
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)

Scott W. Smith

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In my last post I wrote about Missouri’s influence on Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson, and how he wrote his first play during lunchtime while working at an ad agency in Chicago.

But those weren’t the only things that shaped him as a writer. When Wilson was 26-years-old he moved to New York City in the early sixties and worked various odd jobs (dishwasher, reservation clerk, riveter, waiter)—but more importantly he became part of an informal group of about 45 writers. (One of the writers was Sam Shepard who at the time was a bus boy at a jazz club called The Village Gate.)

Here’s an excerpt from Dennis Brown’s book Shoptalk explaining the era:

Wilson became involved with Off-Off-Broadway when it was nurturing a young generation of writers. 

“The greatest thing about the early days was that it was like a five-year apprenticeship for all of us,” he said. “I don’t know any place, even today, other than Off-Off-Broadway that offers people what we had. Working on one-act plays with live audiences that we had to get ourselves. It was dragging them off the streets.”

Talent has a way of clustering, and it clustered in Greenwich Village in the mid-sixties. These starving writers were filled with ambition and confidence. 

“We knew,” Wilson enthused. “We knew. When Sam Shepard’s first play was done, there was a general cheer across all the Village. Everyone knew that someone was added to the list. We would sit talking about theater all night long in some cafe, and before we would leave someone would say, ‘Does this remind you of Van Gogh and Gauguin sitting together? We always knew!”

In 1969 Wilson, director Marshall, director Rob Thikield, and actress Tanya Berezin founded the Circle Repertory Company (first known as Circle Theater Company). In 1982, The New York Times stated, “Circle Rep is home to some of the most prolific talent in the American theater.”

P.S. The first play I ever saw on Broadway was a revival of The Three Sisters in 1997 featuring a Lanford Wilson translation of the Anton Chekhov play. The cast included Lili Taylor, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Amy Irving, Eric Stoltz, David Strathairn, Jerry Stiller,  Calista Flockhart, Justin Theroux and Paul Giamatti. A lot of talent on one stage.

Scott W. Smith

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