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Archive for June, 2016

“Baseball players say they don’t have to look to see if they hit a home run, they can feel it. So I wish for you a moment—a moment soon—when you really put the bat on the ball, when you really get a hold of one and drive it into the upper deck, when you feel it.”
Producer/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin
Syracuse University’s 2012 commencement speech 

Just today I learned that I share not only a birthday month with Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), but we were born the same year.  That’s about where the similarities end. (Well, he co-wrote Moneyball and I’ve seen that movie a bunch of times so we have that in common, too.)

One of the themes of Moneyball is how one can have incredible baseball talent in high school—even be a first round pick—and still not have an appreciable career in the major leagues. While I imagine the attrition rate is pretty high of writers, directors, and actors who hit the ground running with Sorkin after he graduated from Syracuse University in 1983, he’s been able to find tremendous and lasting success in both film and television.

In the great production pyramid today, Sorkin is tucked away somewhere in the little corner at the top. So when MasterClass announced last week it was soon releasing Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting, a 5 hour plus video workshop, I was pretty excited about the news.

I haven’t seen the MasterClass videos, but can’t imagine it not being worth the time and money ($90.) to gather a few takeaways on your way to becoming a better writer. Here’s a list of Aaron Sorkin-centered posts I’ve written over the years that give you a glimpse into what he could touch on:

Aaron Sorkin’s Survival Jobs
Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Sorkin’s Emotional Drive
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Movie Cloning (Aaron Sorkin)
Screenwriting Quote #43 (Aaron Sorkin)
Writing ‘The Social Network’ (Part 1)
Writing ‘The Social Network’ (Part 2)
Writing ‘A Few Good Men’
‘Moneyball’ & Coach Ferrell 

And since those Sorkin teaching videos won’t be released until later this month, here’s a story from his graduation speech where he talks about a lesson he learned while a student:

“As a freshman drama student, I had a play analysis class—it was part of my requirement.  The professor was Gerardine Clark. The play analysis class met for 90 minutes twice a week.  We read two plays a week and we took a 20-question true or false quiz at the beginning of the session that tested little more than whether or not we’d read the play.  The problem was that the class was at 8:30 in the morning, it met all the way down on East Genesee, I lived all the way up at Brewster/Boland, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but from time to time the city of Syracuse experiences inclement weather.  All this going to class and reading and walking through snow, wind chill that’s apparently powered by jet engines, was having a negative effect on my social life in general and my sleeping in particular.  At one point, being quizzed on Death of a Salesman, a play I had not read, I gave an answer that indicated that I wasn’t aware that at the end of the play the salesman dies.  And I failed the class.  I had to repeat it my sophomore year; it was depressing, frustrating and deeply embarrassing.    And it was without a doubt the single most significant event that occurred in my evolution as a writer.  I showed up my sophomore year and I went to class, and I paid attention, and we read plays and I paid attention, and we discussed structure and tempo and intention and obstacle, possible improbabilities, improbable impossibilities, and I paid attention, and by God when I got my grades at the end of the year, I’d turned that F into a D.  I’m joking: it was pass/fail.”
Aaron Sorkin

And just to make that lesson a It’s a Wonderful Life moment, years later Sorkin was asked by Arthur Miller if he could fill in as a guest lecturer at NYU where the subject was Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. (Cue the Walk of Life music.)

Related posts:
Can Screenwriting Be Taught?
Screenwriting Quote #175 (Arthur Miller) 
Murray, Miller & Mass Appeal (Tip #78)
Volcanic Emotions & Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller on Writing
What Would Miller Do?
The Best Film School 

Related Professor posts:
Professor Stephen King
Professor Jerry Lewis (The Total Filmmaker)
Professor/Pirate Steven Soderbergh

P.S. On a micro doc I made a couple of years ago, I started off a quote from Moneyball:

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”
Squire Bill Widener
(Often wrongly attributed to Theodore Roosevelt)

[It’s a Wonderful Life] dealt with the sweeping problem, ‘What would happen if any individual had not been born?’  How would the world be if you’d not been born? Because the Jimmy Stewart character was just anybody from a small town, a very normal guy. He wasn’t anything in particular. Just a small town guy who tried to do the best he could with what he had. Now he was dissatisfied all the time. Dissatisfied with his lot. Dissatisfied with his place. Had ambition to do great things. Yet, had he not lived his particular little world would have been a worse place to live in. Now, this is a theme that I think is universal, and I think is one of the greatest themes I’ve ever encountered. I’d never seen it tackled head-on. What would happen to the world had some individual not been born? Now this is the ultimate in individuality. ‘Cause that individual is you, you, you, you, you, you. It was not Napoleon. One people, one little people. [Jimmy Stewart’s character] couln’t go to the war. Considered himself a complete failure. And found out he was worth much more dead than alive because he had a small little equity in a life insurance [policy].And he tries to bring that off [by attempting suicide]. And somebody comes along and says, no don’t do that, you’re pretty important to people, you know. So he gets a chance to see what his world would have been like had he not been born. Then he wants to live. Wants to live very badly. I think that’s a great tale. I don’t give a damn when you tell that story, I think it’s a great story.”
Three time Oscar-winning director Frank Capra 
(And director of It’s a Wonderful Life)
1971 Interview

Today happens to be my birthday and Capra’s words seem a fitting birthday post. (And I hope it’s encouraging to those of you especially going through a rough time.) And for the younger filmmakers out there who’ve perhaps never seen a Frank Capra film, I’m old enough to say, “Stay off the lawn, and go home and watch some Frank Capra films.”

H/T to Scott Myers at Go Into the Story for posting that Capra video a few days ago. I’d never seen it before. And my birthday gift to you—if you like film history and are unaware of this resource—check out the Cinephilia & Beyond  website because it’s outstanding. (And it comes from an unlikely place—Croatia. Consider supporting their work as well.)

P.S. Speaking of unlikely places, I think the official motto of Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikey Places should be; “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” (For what it’s worth, Capra’s journey began in Bisacquino, Sicily, Italy.)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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While Frank Capra is best known today for making It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), his three Oscar awards came from three films he directed during The Great Depression; It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take it with You (1938),

“From Mr. Deeds on my films were pretty much alike. I mean the same things kept cropping up. But they were not just escapist films. Love thy neighbor is a very deep-seated quality in the human race. It’s something that unless we can get more of that into our everyday lives we’re just going to go down the rat hole.”
Three-time Oscar-winning director Frank Capra (1897-1991)
1971 Interview

Since this is a political season in the United States, I’ll pick a clip to show from his 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (for which Brookfield, Missouri-born screenwriter Lewis R. Foster won an Oscar for writing). 

The origin of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was the short story The Gentleman from Montana also written by Foster. According to Life magazine that short story was loosely based on the early career of Burton K. Wheeler, a Senator from Butte, Montana “who was attacked and falsely indicted when as a freshman Senator in the 1920’s, he fought corruption in the Presidential administration of Warren G. Harding.”

P.S. Many years ago I saw a billboard—for I think the TV show Melrose Place— that read “Loving thy neighbor is cool.” While provocative, I don’t think that was quite what Jesus had in mind when giving the great commandment to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind and, “you shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

Related Posts:
Filmmaking Quote #27 “I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”—Capra
Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville
Earning Your Ending (Tip #76) Edward Burns on It’s a Wonderful Life
Writing from Theme
More Thoughts on Theme
It’s a Wonderful Prison 
(“Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”—Frank Darabont)

Related link:
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington article by Turner Classic Movies 

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Sometimes I think we have to rescue the business from the very people who own it.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
2012 Academy Nicholl Fellowship Keynote Speech

“Try to sell Kramer vs. Kramer today, which was a big hit [in 1979].You just can’t do it…I don’t know if there are executives that listen to this, but I believe that 15 years from now, 20 years from now I think there’s going to be some sort of semi-Nuremberg kind of trial where all the executives of today are going to be standing on a docket and someone like you is going to ‘Where were you when the art of movies just went down the sewer? When this uniquely American art form was completely sacrificed? What were you doing about that?’ And I don’t think any of them will have an answer. And that’s a sad thing…And the problem with [CGI-heavy] movies that are generated inside a computer is that when any image is possible, no image is that impressive anymore. And I think we are raising the bar for what it’s going to take to dazzle people to such a degree that eventually you’re just going to have a movie that’s just an hour and 20 minutes of explosions, because I don’t know what else you can do if it’s not going to be about character, story, and theme.”
Writer/director Billy Ray
Scriptnotes podcast interview with John August

Like a lot of feature writers, Ray has a reverence for great TV (Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men) and appreciates the Kramer vs. Kramer-like dramatic opportunities that can be found there these days. Just a few days ago his pilot for The Last Tycoon, which Ray wrote and directed and based on old Hollywoodbecame available on Amazon.  

“As I was writing the pilot I had a rule for myself which was if I had written a line that I didn’t think was good enough to be in a Mad Men episode I had to come up with another line.”
Billy Ray

Related posts:
Billy Ray’s Directing Advice
Screenwriting Quote #162 (Billy Ray)
Is TV the Best Place to Tell Your Story?

Writer/director Robert Benton-related posts (He won two of his three Oscars for his work on Kramer vs. Kramer):
Filmmaking Quote #14 (Robert Benton)
Screenwriting Quote #104 (Robert Benton)
Joy vs. Agony = Fun Writing 

P.S. To modern Hollywood’s credit the just a handful of Kramer vs. Kramer-like dramatic films at the ’16 Oscars were Bridge of Spies, Room, Brooklyn, Carol and the Best Picture winner Spotlight. To paraphrase what David Mamet once said of theater in America—movies are always dying, and always being reborn.

Scott W. Smith

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“Gripping … [Into the Lion’s Mouth] will keep you planted in your reading chair from start to finish.”
Author Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer, Bosch)

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Author Larry Loftis at Barnes & Noble in Orlando

Last Saturday I went to a talk and book signing by writer Larry Loftis on his newly released Into the Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov. It’s the true story of a World War II double agent…and playboy.

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According to Loftis, Popov was the real-life inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character. Fleming was working for Britian’s  Naval Intelligence Division during World War II and would only say before he died in 1964 that he based Bond on several characters met or heard about.

Loftis relies on new documents to unpack the fascinating life of Popov. I’ve known Loftis for 15-20 years and hope to interview him for this blog and cover his process of researching and writing the book. And also to learn about his working with an L.A. manager in hopes of turning the book into a movie or miniseries.

“Who needs fiction. Truth is a thousand times better, and this true-life adventure has it all. Action, history, secrets, conspiracies—a sizzling piece of entertainment that’s real.”
Steve Berry
(On Into the Lion’s Mouth)

P.S. While Wikipedia lists at least 15 real life people who were linked to the inspiration for the James Bond character (including Popov), one thing we do have is Ian Fleming on camera talking about where he stole the actual name James Bond from; the American ornithologist and author of the book Birds of the West Indies.

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Into the Lion’s Mouth reviews:
USA Today book review
Parade magazine feature 

Related posts:
James Bond, Screenwriting & Golf
James Bond, Spy/Orphan
James Bond is Philip Marlow
Raymond Chandler Interview (by Ian Fleming)

Scott W. Smith

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“One of the best films about American life that I have ever seen.”
Roger Ebert on Hoop Dreams

Tonight in Chicago Kartemquin Films has a public gala at the Harris Theater as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. Congratulations to the Kartemquin team and “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James for producing quality films and being a light upon the path.

The quote below is taken from a longer Q&A from The Criterion Collection:

TCC Question: Was there a particular reason you chose to make movies in Chicago, rather than New York or Los Angeles?

Steve James: When I was going to leave grad school, I was married—still am—and I floated the idea of maybe going to New York, and my wife just did not like that idea; it seemed too intimidating to go there. Los Angeles was a possibility, but I wasn’t particularly interested in L.A. I knew I wanted to do this Hoop Dreams idea, and I knew New York would be a good place, but I knew Chicago would also be a good place to do this story because of the tradition of basketball in this city. I liked the idea of coming to Chicago; I didn’t know much about Chicago, but a big part of my motivation for coming there was I needed to go some place where there was an industry and a way to make films.

Seeing Hoop Dreams at the Enzian Theater when it was first released in the mid-90s was one of the most moving experience I’ve eve had watching a movie. Steve James and his team spent 7 or 8 years making that documentary, so if you’ve never seen it I encourage you to see it and celebrate the work Kartemquin Films has been doing for 50 years.

Cheers—

Related posts:
Screenwriting da Chicago Way 
Friday Night Hoop Dreams

Scott W. Smith

 

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They Will Find You

“If you can dunk a basketball and hit a three point shot, and you can dominate your middle school basketball team and you live in Nebraska, they find you.”
Author Malcolm Gladwell (on those with special talent) 
Interview on The Tim Ferriss Show

This is a nice follow-up to my last post. I’m often drawn to sports
analogies and how they relate to the world of screenwriting & filmmaking.

I agree with Gladwell’s above quote that “they find you.” But that doesn’t mean—even if you have exceptional talent—that  you’ll be the next Stephen Curry or Lebron James. Or that you’ll even make it to the NBA.

Remember the Hoop Dreams documentary? It became an instant favorite of mine when it was released in 1994, and it hasn’t lost any shine since then. William Gates and  Arthur Agee are literally middle school basketball phenoms in Chicago when the movie opens.

The film directed by Steve James follows Gates and Agee through their high school careers and the ups and downs of that season of their lives. And while both got to play college basketball, neither made it to the NBA.

One more story from the sports world is over the weekend I came across a 2002 article I kept on the best high school football players in the Southeastern United States (Florida, Georgia, Alabama, etc.). College Football is big in that area and in the past fifteen years 10 of the college national football championships have been won by teams in the Southeastern region.

I’ve long forgotten what research I was doing in 2002, but I thought it would be interesting to see how many big name players were on the list almost 15 years later. Players that went on to achieve great things in college and perhaps even star in the NFL.

I’m more than a casual follower of college and pro football, but I only recognized one name; Chris Leak. He was that rare middle school talent that was actually offered a football scholarship to Wake Forest in 8th grade. In high school he led his high school team to three consecutive state championships. Three! He was named a Parade magazine All-American.

He received a scholarship to the University of Florida where in 2007 he was the starting quarterback as the Gators won the National Championship and named MVP of the championship game. (Tim Tebow, a freshman then, was Leak’s back-up quarterback.) All that to say Leak was a phenomenal athlete in high school and college.

And though he was drafted by the Chicago Bears he didn’t play a single down in a regular season NFL game. It doesn’t take away from his career—and Leak did play pro football in Canada and with the arena football league. But it does show the level of competition as you move up the food chain and arrive at the highest level in your chosen field. (Remember Leak was the only name I recognized out of the Southeastern list of top high school football players in 2002.)

Somewhere out there I imagine there’s more than one eighth grade filmmaker who is cleaning up awards at local student film festivals. They will find him or her. For everyone else with less than extraordinary off 0f the charts talent—it may take a little time.  (A writer on the documentary Showrunners spoke about how he was ready to take the world by storm after graduating from UCLA film school. He got his first real writing job when he was 33. But they found him.)

Do your writing and filmmaking thing wherever you are and see where it takes you. And strive to maximize your talent and commitment on your way to creating your best work. Do your part in helping them find you.

Related post:
The 99% Rule (A little inspiration from Oscar-winner Michael Arndt)
The Secret to Being a Successful (Seriously)  John Logan’s journey
The Myth of ‘Breaking in’ Insights by Terry Rossio
What is Talent? David Mamet weights in on how often the star of the class “lacks the capacity to continue.”

P.S. Some additional thoughts to ponder from the world of sports: Four time winning Super Bowl coach Bill Belichick began his career as a $25 per week assistant doing the grunt work of studying game films.

Update:  In a nice touch of serendipity, just a few hours after writing this post I learned at the Kartemquin Films (producers of Hoop Dreams) website that Hoop Dreams is airing tonight on WTTW Chicago as part of a year old series honoring the 50th anniversary of Kartemquin.  And tomorrow night is the #KAQ50 Birthday Party at the Harris Theater which will have in attendance William Gates, Arthur Agee, and Steve James.

Scott W.Smith 

 

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