Archive for February, 2016

“I am here tonight to explain why no black people will ever be nominated for anything.”
Richard Pryor at the 1977 Oscar Awards

Since a major theme at the 2016 Oscar awards was a lack of diversity, I thought I’d show a clear and positive example of how that happens in Hollywood.

“One of those people who had long been concerned about the lack of diversity in American films was Laura Ziskin, a producer in Hollywood. Among her best-known produced works were Pretty Woman, As Good as It Gets, and the Spider-man films. Ziskin was in London when she first read my article A Butler is Well Served by this Election in the Washington Post. She and her producing partner, Pam Williams, tracked me down in a hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where I was on assignment. 

“Ziskin and Williams were immediately drawn to the article as a potential movie and imagined The Butler as an epic, a story that would encompass modern civil rights history through the eyes of a White House butler.”
Wil Haywood
The Butler: A Witness to History

Ziskin died June 12, 2011 of cancer but not before helping putting the team of director Lee Daniels, screenwriter Danny Strong, and BET co-founder Shelia Johnson in place which set things in motion creatively and financially for Lee Daniel’s The Butler to eventually get produced. But it was never an easy rode to get made.

“This was something that Laura—basically on her deathbed—was fighting to get made. And we were turned down by every studio in Hollywood. And so we started to raise the funds independently, which we had never done an independent movie before.  Laura had done amazing movies before but as you all know, but all studio movies. Actually the last week of her life she had a meeting on Tuesday with someone who had one the lottery and was interested in making films. So when I say we turned over every rock, I mean every rock. That was on a Tuesday and on Thursday Laura went onto a coma, and on Sunday she died. I mean it was that much of a passion project.”
Pam Williams

“In a field where women are a minority, Ms. Ziskin had a number of commercial and artistic successes, including “No Way Out” (1987), the taut melodrama that helped make Kevin Costner a star; “What About Bob?,” a 1991 comedy with Bill Murray that she also helped write; “To Die For” (1995), a black comedy starring Nicole Kidman; and “As Good as It Gets,” a 1997 romance with Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt that earned best-acting Oscars for both.

“As executive producer of “Pretty Woman” (1990), the megahit fairy tale about a romance between a prostitute and a business tycoon, Ms Ziskin insisted on an ending in which Julia Roberts has changed Richard Gere as fully as he has changed her.

NY Times, June 13, 2011

So there you go, that’s how you do it—persistence of vision. I’ll let Laura Siskin have the last word:

“Historically, the movie business has been a young white man’s business, and there is an ease of men amongst each other because they think alike. When you come into that as a woman, you are an alien to some degree because you think differently.”
Laura Ziskin
The Hollywood Reporter in 1996.

Scott W. Smith




Read Full Post »


“From the moment I read Wil Haygood’s article about him in the Washington Post, I was moved by the real life of Eugene Allen.”
Oscar-Winning Director Lee Daniels

When I heard Wil Haygood speak last week about his journey writing The Butler: A Witness to History, I was reminded of a personal experience I had back in 2003. I was producing a TV program for a group in Chicago and on my shuttle bus from the airport to my hotel the older black driver and I talked about Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey—two world famous people with Chicago roots—and I told him I bet he’d seen incredible changes in his life and he simply said, “Yes, I have.”

Just five years later there would be more change when Senator Obama (also with Chicago roots) was elected the first black President of the United States. If that driver lived to see that day his story somewhat echoed that of Eugene Allen, the former White House butler  Haygood wrote about who witnessed that arc from segregation, to the Civil Rights Act being passed, right up to Obama being elected.

Haygood was speaking as part of the Humanities Speaker Series at Valencia College (whose West campus is one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse parts of Orlando, Florida).  Back in 2008 Haygood was a corespondent for the Washington Post covering Senator Obama’s campaign trail. After hearing Obama speak in North Carolina he believed the tide was turning in favor of Obama getting the nomination.

“I get back to my newsroom and I tell my editor Steve, I said, ‘Steve, Steve—Obama’s going to win.’ He said, you’re tired, you’ve been on the road too long. I’m going to bring you off the road to get some rest. I said, no listen to me., Obama is going to win.  And because he’s going to win, I want to tell a parallel story. I want to find an African American who worked in The White House in one of those service jobs, and I want to tell their story. Because when Obama wins it’s going to me the world to this person. And my editor leaned back and said, well, who are you going to ne looking for? What type of job would this person have held? And I said, Steve I really don’t know. I think I want to find somebody who worked in The White House who shined shoes, who did the laundry, maybe a maid, and this last phrase fell out of my mouth, I still don’t know where it came from, I said, or maybe a butler. And I said I want to find one of those people who was working in The White House before the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed in this country that freed blacks.”
Wil Haygood

His editor said he needed him back out on the campaign trail, but gave him five days to somehow find that White House worker. Haygood’s next hurdle was how to find that person. Here’s the compressed journey of how Haygood hunted down that story—one that had never been told before.

—He called The White House but was told, “Because of confidentiality rules we don’t divulge who works at The White House.”

—He called his Washington, D.C. sources and was told it was a great idea, but no one knew such a person or where to find that person.

—On the fourth day he received a phone call from someone whose daughter was at a party in Georgetown and heard he was looking for someone who worked in the White House before the Civil Rights Act was passed. She gave him the name Eugene Allen, but had no idea on his contact information.

—He went to a library and started going through phone books of Maryland, DC, and Virginia looking for Eugene Allen. He made 56 phone calls and struck out 56 times looking for a Eugene Allen who worked at the White House.

“I was stubborn, because I wanted to prove to my editor that such a person existed. So students listen to this—I kept at it. I kept at it. On the 57 call I said, ‘Hello, my name is Wil Haygood, I’m a writer at the Washington Post and I’m looking for Mr. Eugene Allen who worked for two presidents at The White House.’ And the gentleman on the other end said, ‘Ah, that’s me. My name is Eugene Allen. Except sir, you have your facts wrong. I didn’t work for two presidents, I worked for eight. From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan. So by my math, that’s eight.”
Wil Haygood

Allen’s life was a real life Forrest Gump-like experience. He not only worked for eight Presidents, but had a front row seat to some of the best (and worst) moments in modern American history, as well as seeing/meeting/serving a whole host of iconic Americans: Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis Jr, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra and Martin Luther King Jr.

Haygood’s article A Butler Well Served by This Election ran in The Washington Post November 7, 2008. Allen was invited to the inauguration and went escorted by his son and Haygood.

“He saw the first African American President take the oath of office. And he leaned over to me and said ‘This is the first inauguration I’ve ever been invited to.’ He also said as we were leaving,’When I was in The White House, you couldn’t even dream that you could dream of a moment like this.’ He used the word dream twice.”
Wil Haygood

Something else that I imagine Allen couldn’t dream was that his life (and Haygood’s article) would be the inspiration for the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler , starring a whole host of stars; Forest Whitaker, Oprah, Cuba Gooding Jr, Venessa Redgrave, John Cusack, and Terrence Howard. Allen died in 2010 before the move came out in 2013.

Haygood wrapped up his talk last week saying that Allen gave him a gold plated tie clip that  John F. Kennedy had given him. He added that he was wearing that tie clip, and ended saying that Allen’s house has been designated a historic landmark, and made this observation:

“In a way the story is almost spiritual. For it says in the Bible, that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. ‘ I like to think that the butler is up there in heaven with Dr, King, with the Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall , with all those he served who are up there are well. The butler, the man who used to sweep up the movie theater at The White House. And I’d like to think that he’s walking around saying to them, ‘Hey, would you like to watch a movie tonight? It’s about a butler.

Special thanks to John Watson at Valencia for securing a copy of Wil Haygood’s talk for me to pull exact quotes.

P.S. I bought Haygood’s book and he signed it for my high school English and creative writing teacher Dr. Annye Refoe who not only helped put me on the track where I have earned my creative living the past 30 years, but who being a black woman raised Sanford, Florida showed a class full of white students  A Raisin in the Sun and discussed the writings of Zora Neale Hurston. Later as work would take me through Watts in LA, Overtown in Miami, Cabrini Green in Chicago, Harlem in New York—and really everywhere—I’ve never stopped seeing the world through the lens she provided.

One butler, one writer, one teacher really can make a positive impact in the lives of many.


And I’ll close with this the video below of the multi-media performance of Three Black Kings I shot and edited a few of years ago with artist Gary Kelley. It was performed live by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony under the direction of conductor Jason Weinberger.

Related posts:
25 Links Related to Blacks and Filmmaking
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting
President Obama, the Man & Iowa Seeds
Nelson Mandela, Robben Island & Nudging the World
The First Black Feature Filmmaker
Writing ‘Good Will Hunting’ (That other movie)
The Perfect Ending Valencia College’s connection to Game of Thrones


Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“I was telling somebody yesterday that when I got to the airport in Cincinnati where I flew from that I ran into a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in a while. And he had seen the movie The Butler. And my friend Kevin— he and I hadn’t had the chance to talk about it since it came out— and he asked me, ‘Wil, has your life changed much since the movie came out?’ It made some money, it won some awards, it’s now played in 72 foreign countries. It became this wonderful, phenomenal hit. And I told Kevin my life is still the same. I’m still the same cat that I’ve always been. But I did make note of this little fact, that after the movie grosses exceeded 100 million dollars I heard from both of the ladies who turned me down for the high school prom. What’s up with that?”
Writer/reporter Wil Haygood (The Butler: A Witness to History)
Speaking at Valencia College on February 17, 2016
Haywood’s 2008 Washington Post article A Butler Well Served by This Election was the inspiration for the movie Lee Daniels’ The Butler written by Danny Strong.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the journey of Wil Haygood in telling the story The White House butler who served under eight Presidents of the United States.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“People who have nothing to do with Des Moines drive in off the interstate, looking for gas or hamburgers, and stay forever.”
Bill Bryson
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America

Not every kid who grew up in Iowa would one day have Robert Redford portray them in a movie. In fact, there’s only one person in history I think that applies to—writer Bill Bryson.

Last night I heard Bill Bryson speak at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. His humorous writings were matched by his humorous speaking abilities. His observational style reminded me of Garrison Keillor and Mark Twain, two other writer/speakers with Midwestern roots.

Bryson spoke fondly of growing up in Des Moines during the ‘50s, of his father who was a sports writer for the Des Moines Register, of his adopted county of England, and said that the community of Winter Park was enchanting. (While I did spend an enchanting decade living in Iowa, I have lived in enchanting Winter Park more than any other place.)  Bryson now lives with his family in enchanting Hanover, New Hampshire.

He spoke to the estimated a thousand or so in attendance that there was a certain anonymity of being a writer. That in 30 years of being a published writer no one had ever recognized him on the street. He reflected that he would not recognize some of his favorite writers on the street. He read some short passages from his books and about what a pleasure it was to attend the Sundance Film Festival last year and watching A Walk in the Woods based on his book. At the movie’s premiere, his wife sat on one side of him and on the other side was Redford.

I’ll leave you a one simple practical bit of wisdom from last night’s Q&A:

“What inspires me to write? Bills.”
Bill Bryson

P.S. Des Moines is a much different town today than when Bryson grew up there over 50 years ago and recounted so well in his book The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memior.

In Colin Woodward’s recent article  How America’s Dullest City Got Cool, he unpacks how a place once known as Des Boring reinvented itself:

In recent years Des Moines has been named the nation’s richest (by U.S. News) and economically strongest city (Policom), its best for young professionals (Forbes), families (Kiplinger), home renters (Time), businesses and careers (Forbes). It has the highest community pride in the nation, according to a Gallup poll last year, and in October topped a Bloomberg analysis of which cities in the United States were doing the best at attracting millennials to buy housing. “Never mind California or New York,” Fast Company declared two years back. “By some important measures, Des Moines is way ahead of its cooler coastal cousins.”

That’s one reason why I’ve set my recent spec TV pilot in Des Moines, Iowa. Another enchanting place.

P.P.S. Screenwriters Jim Uhls (Fight Club) and John August (Big Fish, Scriptnotes) both went to college at Drake University in Des Moines.

Related posts:
Postcard #11 (Des Moines)
Postcard #77 (Iowa State Capital)
San Francisco Vs. Des Moines
2010 48 Hour Film Festival/ Des Moines 

Scott W. Smith


Read Full Post »

“I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career, that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”
To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee (1926-2016)

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Plays are about conflict. Plays are about people not getting along.”
Edward Albee

“Generally in a lot of my plays, two people are in major confrontation with each other, like in The Odd Couple or Barefoot in the Park or The Sunshine Boys.”
Neil Simon


“Things couldn’t be better. After all Riley’s 11 now, what could happen?” Joy in Pixar’s “Inside Out” (a second before a sold sign puts Riely’s perfect Midwest life into a downward spiral.)

In February of 2008—way back when I just started blogging and honestly didn’t know if writing for this blog would last more than a month—my fifth post was titled Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip #1). It was about conflict.

A better title would have been Conflict-Conflict-Conflict.  Here’s an excerpt:

If real estate’s mantra is location, location, location, then for screenwriters it’s conflict, conflict, conflict. The lack of conflict in screenplays is why studio readers say that you can cut out the first 30 pages of many screenplays and nothing would be lost. Start your story as late as you can and start it with conflict. (Rocky loses his locker, in Sounder the boy’s dad is hauled away, Nemo’s mother, brothers and sisters are all killed, Juno is pregnant, all in the first few scenes of the story. And it’s hard to beat the first line in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, “Gregor Samsa woke one morning and found he had changed overnight into a gigantic insect.” (When you wake up and you’re a bug, that’s meaningful, life-changing conflict.)

What are your favorite movies scenes? Good chance they’re full of meaningful conflict. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” (Casablanca), “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” (Sunset Boulevard),  “She’s my sister and my daughter.” (Chinatown)—Conflict-Conflict-Conflict.

But don’t just take my word for it, read this exchange from Neil Simon’s play Broadway Bound (as two brothers are struggling to make it as writers):

STAN  I know what we’ve been doing wrong.
EUGENE  What we’ve been doing wrong.
STAN (Nods)  What’s the essential ingredient in every good sketch we’ve ever seen?
EUGENE  I don’t know. What?
STAN  Don’t say “what” so fast. Think about it.
EUGENE (Thinks) What’s the essential ingredient in every good sketch we’ve ever seen.
STAN  Right.
EUGENE  I don’t know. What?
STAN  You do know. We’ve talked about it. You’re just not thinking.
EUGENE  Stan, I don’t want to take a high school exam. Tell me so we can write the sketch.
STAN  The ingredient in every good sketch we’ve ever see—is conflict! …Remember? the night we talked about conflict?
STAN  You do remember?
EUGENE  Tuesday, September seventh, eight thirty-five P.M.
STAN  All right, Now what’s the other ingredient in every good sketch we’ve ever seen?
EUGENE (Sighs in exasperation) More conflict!
STAN  Come on. You know it… Think about it…Heh? …Do you know it?
EUGENE  Yes. It’s when one brother wants to kill the other brother.
EUGENE  It’s close. You said it in that sentence. Do you remember what you said in that sentence?
EUGENE  No. It was a long time ago.
STAN  One brother wants to kill the other brother. The key word is wants! In every comedy, even drama, someone has to want something and want it bad. He wants money, he wants a girl, he wants to get to Philadelphia. When somebody tries to stop him from getting money or a girl or getting to Philadelphia, that’s conflict.

This is how David Mamet puts in his book On Directing film:
“Screenwriting is a craft based on logic. It consists of the assiduous application of several basic questions: What does the hero want? What hinders him from getting it? What happens if he does not get it?”

Mamet’s thought boiled down to one word—conflict.

In one of my most popular posts (Screenwriting the Pixar Way) the director of Toy Story 3 says;

“Toy Story 3 is about change. It’s about embracing change. It’s about people being faced with change and how they deal with it.”
Lee Unkrich


I like how Carson Reeves at ScriptShadow says, “Every single one of your screenplays should have goals, stakes, and urgency.”

Goals/stakes/urgency= Conflict

“A good character always has a crisis lurking inside them like a ticking time bomb.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt

Crisis/ticking time bomb=conflict.

Others have said dramatic writing  is about characters making wrong decisions or bad choices.

Wrong decisions/bad choices= Conflict

And just to drive this point home…

Shakespeare, Chaplin, Hitchcock –Conflict, Conflict, Conflict
Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarantino—Conflict, Conflict, Conflict
Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams—Conflict, Conflict, Conflict
Film, TV, Other (documentaries, radio drama, digital storytelling, reality shows, Serial podcasts, etc)—Conflict, Conflict, Conflict

Related posts:
Conflict: What? vs. How?
Visual Conflict

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

This post originally ran in September 2013:

“It’s universality is obvious. Who among us, sometime in his life, hasn’t shared living quarters with another human being?…The play represented everyone in the world, including, I imagine, astronauts in space for weeks at a time.”
Neil Simon on his play/screenplay The Odd Couple

Today is history in the making here at Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places. This is my first post from an airplane.  So with thanks to US Air’s go-go in air internet service, here is the first post coming to you from somewhere in the clouds over  Pennsylvania (I think that’s where I am).

Props to any writer out there who’s had their worked produced on Broadway. But did you know that Neil Simon once had three different plays on Broadway—at the same time. That’s quite a feat. The other day I was reading the screenplay for The Odd Couple and thought I’d compare that opening with the opening of the play.

The Odd Couple screenplay opening:


It is a block filled with Chili restaurants, parking lots and third rate hotels. Into view comes FELIX UNGAR, walking aimlessly along the street. He wears a tan linen suit, rumpled, his tie askew and his top button on his shirt is open. His eyes are blurry and ringed with lack of sleep. His hands are in his pockets and he walks without purpose and in no particular direction. He is oblivious to the world around him. Suddenly his eyes squint at the glare of an electric sign on top of the marquee of a small, cheap hotel. Felix stops and looks up to the top of the hotel. He turns and looks around the street… possibly a last look at the world that doesn’t even seem to need or want him. He enters the hotel.

The Odd Couple play’s opening:


Time: A warm summer night.

Scene: The apartment of Oscar Madison’s. This is one of those large eight-room affairs on Riverside Drive. in the upper eighties. The building is about 35 years old and still vestiges of its glorious past. High ceilings, walk-in closets and thick walls. We are in the living room with doors leading off the kitchen, bedrooms, and a bathroom, and a hallway to other bedrooms. Although the furnishings have been chosen with extreme good taste, the room itself, without the touch and care of a woman there these  past few months, is now a study in slovenliness. Dirty dishes, discarded clothes, old newspapers, empty bottles, glasses filled and unfilled, open and unopened laundry packages, mail and disarrayed furniture abound. The only cheerful note left in this room is its twelfth floor window. Three months ago, this was a lovely apartment.

RISE: The room is filled with smoke. A poker game is in progress. There are six chairs around the table but only four men are sitting. They are simply, MURRAY, ROY, SPEED, and VINNIE…..

Which do you think is the more effective open? The play doesn’t start with Felix—or even Oscar. The movie opens with a man at the end of his rope. I’m siding with the movie open.  Looking back, I wonder which one Neil Simon prefers.

Here’s the opening of the tv version of The Odd Couple which ran from 1970-1975, followed by the opening graphics of The Odd Couple (2015 Series).

Related Posts:

Writing ‘The Odd Couple’
Neil Simon on Conflict
Neil Simon on Critics
Descriptive Writing (Frank Darabont)
Descriptive Writing (Stephen King)
Descriptive Writing- Pt 5, Setting (tip #26)
Can Screenwriting Be Taught (2.0) Touches on where Neil Simon learned to write. (He didn’t go to college.)

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: