Archive for March, 2016

“When you map your life in retrospect there’s a bit of a blind cartographer at work.”
Jim Harrison
Off to the Side: A Memoir

This is a screenwriting blog that strays off the reservation (the reservation being Hollywood). Or as the official blog of Tom Cruise said a few years ago, “For a more off-beat look at writing, the Screenwriting from Iowa blog provides screenwriters with a slightly removed take from the Hollywood norm.”

We’ve been remembering writer Jim Harrison who died last Saturday so I thought we’d take a little trip today down to Key West and introduce you to a little off-beat film— Tarpon (1973)—that featured Jim Harrison and the music of Jimmy Buffett.

There’s been plenty written and said about Superman v Batman in the last few days since its release but for some reason here’s the only thing I could find recently said about the obscure 40+ year old documentary on tarpon fishing:

“[Director] Guy de la Valdene had all the money and sent a crew that was all French. I speak French now, but I didn’t at the time, so there was a huge communication issue. So we’re in the Keys and taking out boats with [poet] Richard Brautigan and [novelist] Tom McGuane. It really captured the Key West of the ‘70s. It’s sort of a treasure today. But we didn’t really get paid for it. I wrote the music and Harrison was going to do the narration.”
Jimmy Buffett
Men’s Journal

And here’s another memory of Harrison that Buffett tells in the Men’s Journal that rounds out well this round of posts on Harrison:

“One time Jim and I drove his Ford Cortina from Montana to Michigan together. Just the two of us. We seemed to have all these road trips that we did together that were kind of, kind of hilarious. I loved to hear Jim’s view of the world. I don’t know how much he cared about mine. On another trip in Florida, we talked about Cuba a lot. I told him about my grandfather, who was a ship captain who took his family on board in those days, back in the early 1920s. My father spent his first birthday in Havana Harbor, and there’s a family story that my grandfather put up a signal flag to celebrate my dad’s first birthday, and all of the other ships in the harbor started signaling back. So all the sailing ships in Havana Harbor had their flags up for my dad’s first birthday. And he loved that story. Well, the next thing I knew, he told me to look at Legends of The Fall when it came out. The opening of one chapter it says Tristan took a ship to somewhere, and there’s this passage about it. And he told me later, he said ‘Yeah, I did that for your grandpa and your dad.’ He put it in the book.”

P.S. “Jim [Harrison] became famous for his fiction, celebrated internationally as a storyteller of genius, but through all the years, and the novels and novellas and films that came with them, he remained a poet, his life syncopated with contrapuntal complexities and the chromatic cadences of rural landscapes.”
Terry McDonell
The New Yorker, Jim Harrison, Mozart of the Prairie

P.P.S. In 2008 Tarpon became available on DVD. Here are a couple of quotes about the doc:

“Tarpon is a timeless and beautifully executed film about life, sport and culture. You’ll be moved, amused, outraged and, most of all, entertained.” 
Tom Brokaw, Journalist and Author

“This long-lost gem of a film has acquired cult status in the fly fishing world, and with good reason. It has the most breathtaking footage of the tarpon-stalking experience that you’ll ever see. Like the fish itself, this is a work of art.” 
Carl Hiaasen, Author

Related posts:
Writer Jim Harrison
Pat Conroy & Rehearsing for Death
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 2)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 3)
Havana Daydreamin’

Scott W. Smith

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This post originally ran in 2010:

“I wonder, when a writer’s blocked and doesn’t have any resources to pull himself out of it, why doesn’t he jump in his car and drive around the U.S.A.? I went last winter for seven thousand miles and it was lovely. Inexpensive, too.”
Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall)
Quoted in The Paris Review, 1988 

Related links:
NPR All Things Considered: “Harrison set his stories in the untamed corners of America — the Big Sky country of Montana, the arid deserts of the Southwest, the swamplands and forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where he spent his summers.”

The Atlantic:
“I think about my novels for a long time before I start to write them—a year or more, sometimes many years. I’m half Swede, and Swedes are brooders. I just sit around brooding about it. A lot of this happens when I’m walking or driving.  I’ll take long, directionless car trips to try and see where my mind is. Usually, the story begins with a collection of images. I’ll make a few notes in my journal, but not very much. Often not much more than a vague outline. A tracery, a silhouette. 

“That’s how the story ‘Brown Dog’ came to me—from an image. I had visited the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Sault Ste. Marie. They had photos of the cook in the galley of a sunken ship that went down in the 1890s. The lakes up there are so cold that the cook looked perfectly preserved, floating around in the galley—except he didn’t have any eyes.  That’s how the story started.”
—Jim HarrisonNew York Times:

“There is also a tradition in the Upper Peninsula [in Michigan] that you never pass by anyone needing help. An Ojibwa Indian once towed me 60 miles after I broke a fan belt on Fourth of July weekend. He seemed startled that I couldn’t install a fan belt. A gas station had a spare, which he installed. He wouldn’t accept money so I stuffed a C note in his wife’s pocket. She smiled, having more sense than he did. Where can you find someone to tow you 60 miles and install your fan belt? Only in the U.P.”
—Jim Harrison

“If we didn’t live in Montana we’d be living in or near Marquette, Mich., an interesting city of about 21,000 with a historic downtown district on the shore of Lake Superior. There is a fine harbor, and many sail their boats there in the summer. There is also reasonably good skiing and golf. And important for my purpose there’s a hotel of New York City standards called the Landmark Inn on a hill overlooking the harbor. The food is good, and you could stay in the Teddy Roosevelt Suite or, oddly enough, the Jim Harrison Suite.”
—Jim Harrison

Related posts:
Jim Harrison 1937-2016 (Part 1)
Jim Harrison 1937-2016 (Part 2)
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisited’

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This post originally ran in 2010 and I’m reposting it in light of Jim Harrison’s death last Saturday:

“Later that night the ocean again entered Tristan’s dreams…”
Legends of the Fall (Jim Harrison)

“So many nights I just dream of the ocean…”
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (Jimmy Buffett)

I’m not sure what the connection is between writer Jim Harrison and musician Jimmy Buffett, but I’m pretty sure there is one. Some secret Livingston/Key West handshake.

And somewhere in that connection is a spirit that resonates a longing not limited to the books, poems, and songs they’ve created but they’ve tapped into a desire to experience what it means to be alive. And to desire to not only live a life in full—or to use Hemingway’s phrase “all the way up”— but also to have “a good death.”

The 1994 movie Legends of the Fall, based on a novella by Harrisonis a movie I watch every couple of years. I don’t know if it’s the scenery where director Edward Zwick (Glory) picked to shoot the film in the beautiful Canadian Rockies. I don’t know if it’s the cinematography that captured that beauty—for which DP John Toll won an Oscar in 1995. I don’t know if it’s the actors—or simply Brad Pitt’s character Tristan or his Lawrence of Arabia/John Waynelike  introduction, or the James Horner music—whatever the reason, I find Legends of the Fall repeatedly enjoyable to watch.

Critics were spilt at the time of its release and it’s not hard to see why. It has one foot in being an epic story and one foot in melodrama. Tricky territory. And I think that was by design in an attempt for the movie to gain a large audience of both men and women.  Coming off the heals of a Dances with WolvesLegends of the Falls fell short at the box office & Academy Award-wise compared with Dances (which won Pest Picture and 7 total Oscars and made $184 million domestic). But Legends is the one I return to again and again.

Perhaps Legends the film split the vote more than the book did and paid the price. You have wild horses, guns and war for the men and beautiful western clothes, lawn tennis, and a romance normally associated with a romance novel or soap opera for the ladies. And if any men were on the fence, Pitt’s flowing hair (often perfectly backlit) kept them from going over. I’m never surprised when men tell me they’ve never seen the film. Perhaps a sweeping generalization and an oversimplification, but that’s my take. It’s too—to use Harrison’s word—pretty.

Pitt even jokes on the DVD commentary that the movie’s like a L.L. Bean catalog. This is what the original source writer had to say of the refined mountain life portrayed in the movie;

“I did have issues, as they say now, with certain parts of the film, because I thought, ‘Do they have a French dry cleaner right down the street or something like that?,’ ’cause everybody looked— pretty. But so many people seem to like it and I have no objections because it’s a director’s medium. When you accept your check you’re selling your kid.” 
Jim Harrison
NPR, All Things Considered, Feb. 08, 2007

The movie basically extracts the characters that Harrison created and somewhat places them in a new story. Col. Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), Alfred (Aidan Quinn), Samuel (Henry Thomas), Tristan (Pitt) and others are all there. Susannah’s role (Julia Ormond) is altered and beefed up. Heck, the book opens with the brothers going to the war where in the movie that doesn’t occur until the 32 minute mark. The book is more Tristan focused and covers more of his far away adventures. Like writer Walter Kirn (who also happens lives in Livingston, Montana where Harrison lives part of the year) said of the movie Up in the Air that was based on his book of the same name—the book is not the movie, and the movie is not the book, but they have the same DNA.

To director Zwick’s credit I think he and screenwriters Bill Wittliff and Susan Shiliday, as well as the talented cast & crew created a film that continues to have legs (and a heartbeat) more than 15 years after it was created and that’s not an easy accomplishment. (And something that I don’t think any of the other films based on Harrison’s work have achieved.)

As a side note, though Harrison has homes now in both Arizona and Montana, and has traveled widely, this is what he wrote a few years ago:

“I have several dear friends in Nebraska and the Niobrara River Valley in the Sandhills is my favorite beautiful spot on earth.” 
Jim Harrison

In my adventures over the years I have been fortunate to experience such things as witnessing a full solar eclipse in Salzburg, been free diving with large green turtles in Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, and flown in a seaplane over the Amazon River, but one of the most unbelievable and unexpected experiences I’ve ever had is watching thousands of Sandhill Cranes fill the sky on the edge of the Nebraska Sand Hills.

To beat the drum once again you don’t need to be in New York and L.A. to find adventures or stories worth telling. Certainly, even a somewhat remote place such as Nebraska has been fertile ground for writers from Harrison (Dalva), to Willa Cather (My Antonia) and screenwriter Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt).

“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pig pen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.”
Willa Cather
My Antonia

May you all have eyes to see.

Up in the Air—The Novel vs. The Film

Scott W. Smith

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I learned today that writer Jim Harrison died this past Saturday, so it seems fitting to repost this week something I wrote about him back in 2010:

“I think I wrote Legends of the Fall in about ten days.
Jim Harrison on his novella for which the movie* was based

Though Jim Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall is less than 100 pages long and he said he wrote it in about ten days those numbers can be deceptive. In one interview he said it usually takes him about 10 years of thinking about things by the time he finishes writing his novellas.

Before Harrison became widely known as the writer of Legends of the Fall (which became a 1994 movie and helped cement Brad Pitt as a movie star) he had long been carving away at his craft in Michigan.

He was born in rural Grayling, Michigan in 1937. In Off to the Side: A Memoir, Harrison calls Reed City, Michigan where he lived between the ages of five and twelve his “golden years.”

“My background used to embarrass me. I’d think, I want to be like Lord Byron, or Vincent van Gogh. And then I’d realize, how can a boy from a little farm town do that? I think the years I spent at manual labor as a block layer, a carpenter, a digger of well pits, have given me more physical endurance for later in my life. And in an utterly corny Sherwood Anderson way, it makes you think those long thoughts. If you’re unloading fertilizer trucks for a dollar an hour all day long, and dreaming about New York City, it really means something. I remember a month before my first book of poems came out, I was working on a house foundation and the lumber truck couldn’t get close enough to the excavation, so I had to wheelbarrow 1,200 cement blocks for about seventy yards, load them and unload them. It was a cold, icy, early November day and it took me about nine hours to do it. That day I manually handled thirty-five tons worth of cement blocks, and that was for two and a half dollars an hour. When I got home I was hungry and tired, and what I had to show for it was right around twenty-five dollars. But you got a lot of thinking done. What it does do for you is, if you can hoe corn for fifty cents an hour, day after day, you can learn how to write a novel. You have absorbed the spirit of repetition.”
Jim Harrison
The Art of Fiction No. 104, Interview with Jim Fergus

It is interesting to note that Ernest Hemingway, Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade) and Harrison all spent time hunting and fishing in the same general northern area of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. All also came from religious families who put an emphasis on reading as well as an outdoor life. And while they all wrestled with their faith it impacted their writing. All three also gravitated to living at least part of the time in the northern U.S. region of the Rocky Mountains.

McGaune and Harrison also attended Michigan State at the same time as did fellow writer Richard Ford. In 2008, Esquire magazine listed The 75 Books Every Man Should Read and placed Legends of the Fall at #23 and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter #60.

Harrison went on to get his M.A. in comparative literature at Michigan State and then struggled to earn a living for well over a decade existing on fellowships, grants and publishing books of poetry while writing in Michigan. In interviews he has said that he never made over $10,000. a year for the first 17 years of his marriage. Then there were some tax problems, some drinking problems, cocaine, depression, followed by suicidal thoughts.

After a hunting injury he was encouraged by McGuane to try his hand at writing a novel. The result was Wolf; A False Memoir (1971). A few years later he published  A Good Day to Day and that would open the door to Hollywood where Harrison was paid well, but produced little as a screenwriter. He wrote his first screenplay in 1975 for filmmaker Frederick Weisman (though it was unproduced) and worked as a contract screenwriter though 1997.  A side benefit was hanging out with people like Orson Welles, John Huston, and Jack Nicholson. 

He continued writing novels and eventually some of them found their way to getting produced as movies. Sometimes he was credited with working on the script and sometimes other screenwriters were brought in to write the scripts. Harrison’s credits include  Dalva, Carried Away, Revenge, and Wolf, along with Legends of the Fall. In 2007, Harrison was elected into the American Academy of the Arts.

These days Harrison splits his time between Montana and Arizona. When asked by The Paris Review if he had any advice for younger writers he replied:

“Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch. Be totally familiar with the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and if you have any extra time, throw in the Eastern. Because how can you write well unless you know what passes for the best in the last three or four hundred years?”

More on Harrison tomorrow and some of his thoughts on the movie Legends of the Fall.

*The screenplay for Legends of the Fall was written by Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff.

Related post: Writer Jim Harrison (Part 2)

Screenwriting from Michigan

Scott W. Smith

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“I remember taking workshops with Del Close, and he always used to ask the same question of a scene: ‘Is it true?’ He didn’t give a rat’s ass if it was funny. Telling the truth was always held in higher regard than making an audience laugh.”
Writer/actress Tina Fey (30 Rock, Saturday Night Live)
The Believer interview with Eric Spitznagel

Related Posts:
Mike Nichols on Comedy, Tragedy & Truth
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


Scott W. Smith

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“The smallest, teeniest, weeniest, emotional discovery that’s real, beats the hell out of the biggest one that’s phoney.”
Improv guru Del Close 
(as found at http://delquotemarathon.tumblr.com)

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions 

Scott W. Smith

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Del Close was the improv comedy guru (both writing and acting) in Chicago when I went there. And he was the reason I went there. I was told about this guy doing groundbreaking work, where you are improvising plays, and he could teach you how to improvise scenes. He was a big influence on my life. I worked with him for a long time. Our improv group became an experimental group. He’d work out forms with us—Ian Roberts, Matt Besser, Rachel Dratch was in the group for a while, Neil Flynn, Miles Stroth. He would use us as his group, and what he taught, looking back on it, a lot of it was about writing. He had certain kinds of things he would push, like: always look for your third thought. Your first instinctual thought was a commonplace one, your second one was kind of respectable, but it was the third one where it got special. So he would have us stand on stage until we found that third thought, and eventually we got pretty fast at it.

“He taught us a lot of things. He was a big believer in always playing at the top of your intelligence—even if you’re being dumb, be brilliantly dumb. And if you’re playing a kid, don’t play a kid as dumb, kids are smart. If you’re playing someone drunk, usually if someone’s drunk they’re trying to act like they’re not drunk. Don’t play them drunk. A lot of his work was about finding a more original choice. And he did a lot of game theory for creating scenes, and finding out what the scene is about. A really formative time of my life. And at that time—this was pre-Internet—there was just this crazy migration of talented people into Chicago. A list of like one hundred people that are still writing, directing, and acting now. All the way from Tina Fey to Mike Myers to Chris Farley to Dave Koechner, and on and on. Rachel Dratch, Jon Glaser. It was an incredible time to be in that city.”
Oscar-winning writer/director Adam Mckay (The Big Short)
interview by R.Emmet Sweeney
(Mckay was a founding member of the improv group Upright Citizens Brigade that started out performing in coffee houses and small theaters in Chicago. After a run with Saturday Night Live, Mckay teamed up with Will Ferrel to make Anchorman and Talladega Nights.) 

Related posts:
Screenwriting da Chicago Way
‘Make Your Own Opportunities’
‘Only three kinds of scenes’—Mike Nichols
‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ Golf Scene
Harold Ramis Earned His ‘Stripes’

Scott W. Smith


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“I get swept away by the sincerity. I do not get swept away by what people call pyrotechnics & prose. I do not get swept away by wit. I think wit is in a lot of ways damaging to fiction. I just feel like I’m listening to a writer and not the character. When I read the writers I really love like Philip Roth and Alice Munro—and their prose is beautiful—they’re more interested in truth than in fancy clothes for their prose.”
Author Ethan Canin (Emperor of the Air, A Doubter’s Almanac)
Interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelman

Related posts:
The Shocking Truth  (Tennessee Williams quote)
Blending Truth, Spectacle & Serving the Story
Mike Nichols on Comedy, Tragedy & Truth
Hunting for Truth
Telling the Truth=Humor

Scott W. Smith

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“I’ve lived in New York before. Everybody says it helps with publicity and awards and stuff like that. I’d rather have my nice life, for example, in Iowa.”
Ethan Canin

“With this extraordinary novel [A Doubter’s Almanac], Ethan Canin now takes his place on the high wire with the best writers of his time.”
Pat Conroy

Have you ever wondered what professors at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop teach their students? Well, today you’ll find at least one bit of advice.

On Brian Koppelman’s The Moment podcast interview with author Ethan Canin,  Koppelman said that Canin was was “hyper-intelligent.” Canin, you see, dislikes being called an intellectual because he doesn’t like what intellectuals have done with literature.

But a quick glance over Canin’s resume and you can tell that—to paraphrase the great football coach Bobby Bowden—Canin may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he’s in, it doesn’t take long to do the roll call.

Canin attended Stanford University where he studied mechanical engineering and graduated with an English degree, received an MFA from the University of Iowa, graduated from Harvard Medical School, became a published author (his short story The Palace Thief  become the movie The Emperor’s Club), and now he’s a professor at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“I think life is a struggle for every human being…Life has its difficulties. Everybody’s got a story. One of the things I tell students is nobody’s boring. That’s such a misunderstanding to think somebody’s leading a boring life.”
Ethan Canin
Brian Koppelman’s The Moment podcast February 2016 

Some people live quiet lives, but not a boring one. And every once in a while—like I wrote in my post Good Wil Hunting—a writer comes along late in someone’s life and shows the extraordinary within the ordinary.

P.S. I’ve listen to that Brian Koppelman podcast with Ethan Canin four times all the way through. Stimulating stuff and made me go to the library after the first time I heard it and check out books by Saul Bellow, Tobias Wolff, and John Cheever. Next will be books/short stories by Mark Halprin, Raymond Carver, Nobel Prize-winner Alice Munro, and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger.

Related posts:
John Irving, Iowa & Writing (My visit to the Iowa Workshop)
(Yawn) Another Pulitzer Prize (for a Workshop graduate)
Postcard #55 (Iowa Writers’ Workshop)
Lena Dunham, Sundance & Iowa
The Juno-Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith



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“I had to fully engage with the process and just choose to be broke.”
Writer/director  Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies )
2016 SXSW Keynote Address

This is a fitting follow-up to yesterday’s quote by filmmaker John Sayles about the difficulty of making money these days as an independent filmmaker. Joe Swanberg may be the most prolific filmmaker in the United States. Some filmmakers make six films in their career—Swanberg’s made that many in one year.

To date he’s made 29 (feature and short) films . I haven’t seen any of them—and you may not of seen any of them, or even heard of any of them—but you have to admit that making 29 films the last decade or so is a pretty impressive feat.

He’s made enough money (via small distribution deals, writing scripts for hire, and directing a project for HBO) to eke out a living including having insurance, and buying a house and with his wife. (From what I can gather they still ahem some student loan and credit card debt.)

The Chicago-based filmmaker also joined the WGA and the DGA, and his 2014 film Happy Christmas featured Anna Kendrick and Lena Dunham in the cast.

“There are a lot of filmmakers I know who are making very sincere attempts to make work that is commercial, but they don’t know what that means. They pitch me a project: ‘I’m tired of doing the arty thing. I’m working on a screenplay now that I think I can attach some famous people to and actually make some money.’ And then they tell you the idea and you’re just like, ‘Never in a million years is a) any famous actor going to want to do that movie; or b) is any distributor going to want to put it out. You are so deluded right now. You don’t know what ‘commercial’ means.’ And these are smart people, but they shouldn’t be thinking about ‘commercial.’ They stand a better chance of making money by following their own whacko artistic vision.”
Writer/Director Joe Swanberg
Filmmaker Magazine interview with Esther B. Robinson

Related posts:
How to Shoot a Film in 10 Days
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns 
Lena Dunham, Sundance & Iowa
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood (Edward Burns)
Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Scott W. Smith

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