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Archive for July, 2016

 “I put no organization to the writing process. The writing is done on the fly.”
Oscar & Emmy-winner Aaron Sorkin (on writing teleplays for The West Wing)
The West Wing Script Book

page 151

P.S. While Sorkin may have been writing on the fly for The West Wing because he knew the characters and there is the regular TV grind of cranking out work, for his feature film scripts he does have at least one tried and true organizational way to add to his writing process:

“There are index cards everywhere in Aaron Sorkin’s office. Index cards for scenes from films going back to 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War. The writer likes to use those cards, tacked to a large corkboard, to keep track of key elements. Social Network’s pivotal scenes are still up there, with notes that read, ‘Mark and Erica in bar,’ ‘Mark walks back to dormitory’ and ‘Mark begins drinking, blogging, hacking.'”
Inside Aaron Sorkin’s Writing Process by Christy Grosz
The Hollywood Reporter, 1/8/2011

Related posts:
Screenwriting Via Index Cards 

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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“I know when I write a line that I like. When musically it feels right. What the words sound like are as important to me as what they mean….I don’t know [while writing] we’re going to be saying ‘You can’t handle the truth,’ however many years later.”
Aaron Sorkin
Interview with David Brooks

“I’m not writing something that’s meant to be read; I’m writing something that’s meant to be performed. Just having written a screenplay is no more satisfying to me than if a songwriter handed out pieces of sheet music.”
Aaron Sorkin
Inside Aaron Sorkin’s Writing Process
by Christy Groaz, Variety  

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is one of those exceptions to the rule. Movies are a visual medium so there is much emphasis to write visually. (Visual Conflict, Visual Subtext, George Miller Masterclass in Visual Storytelling, Show Don’t Tell.) Which explains these quotes found on the ScreenCraft website.

“A good film script should be able to do completely without dialogue.”
Screenwriter/playwright David Mamet (The Verdict)

“Dialogue is a necessary evil.”
4-time Oscar-winning producer/director Fred Zinnemann (High Noon)

And this one from a Timeout interview:

‘I’m not one of those people who writes long soliloquies… And I just think that visual storytelling, for me, is more interesting. So if I can show something rather than say it, I will. And to have a character who almost says nothing is perfect for me, I love that.’
Oscar-winning screenwriter Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List)

But Sorkin wasn’t a hyper movie buff growing up, his parents took him to plays and he developed an ear and appreciation for dialogue. He majored in musical theatre. And so one of the things that set Sorkin apart was his knack for writing sharp dialogue.

P.S. Ironically the two credited screenwriters on Moneyball are Sorkin and Zaillian. A film which happens to have some moments that play out visually and others that play out with dialogue that flows like music. Sorkin & Zaillan—yin & yang.

Related posts:
‘Everyone wants to say cool dialogue.’
‘Storytelling Without Dialogue’
Writing Actor Bait (Tip #64)
Directing Tips from Peter Bogdanovich  “Silent looks between people—to me, that’s what movies are about.”—Peter Bogdanovich
The Four Functions of Dialogue 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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“It’s both surprising and fascinating to learn that people are more creative in the shower than they are at work….The relaxing, solitary and non-judgmental shower environment may afford creative thinking by allowing the mind to wander freely, and causing people to be more open to their inner stream of consciousness and daydreams.”
Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.
Co-author, Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of Creative Mind Psycho

You’ve tried everything, right? Everything to improve your writing. Your creativity.

Well, maybe not EVERYTHING.

“I’ve got plenty of quirks. I go to an office early in the morning. Early in the morning is really good writing time. I take anywhere between six to eight showers a day. I’m not exaggerating. I’m not a germaphobe. It has nothing to do with germs. I’m writing, writing—it’s not going well. Writing, writing—it’s going badly. Take a shower. Put on different clothes and you’ll feel refueled and start again.”
Oscar & Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin
Bloomberg interview with Emily Chang

So while sure concept,  conflict, interesting characters, that Mamet stuff on drama, and an insanely great ending are all important, give that six to eight showers a day a try.

Let me know how it goes.

P.S. If I recall correctly, in one of Julia Cameron’s book (The Artist’s Way or The Right to Write) she mentioned how water (either showers or swimming), walking, and driving all seemed to been means of improving the creative thought process. It not only works for Sorkin, because two time Oscar-winning screenwriter Quentin Tarantino talks about how swimming is part of his creative process (and how instead of spending money on drugs, he has a heated pool at his home). And two time Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was known to actually write screenplays while sitting in a bathtub.

Dalton-Trumbo-Bathtub-1100x1390

P.P.S. “In the shower, with the hot water coming down, you’ve left the real world behind, and very frequently things open up for you. It’s the change of venue, the unblocking the attempt to force the ideas that’s crippling you when you’re trying to write.”
Four time Oscar-winning writer/director Woody Allen
Esquire 

Related post:
Professor Aaron Sorkin
Aaron Sorkin on Good vs. Great
Sorkin on Revealing Character 
‘Bird by Bird’

Scott W. Smith

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Aaron Sorkin is that rare breed of dramatic writers who has had success with Broadway theatre, Hollywood feature films, and broadcast television. But did you know part of his start was in small southern towns?

After he graduated from Syracuse University in 1983 with a degree in musical theater he moved to New York City, but he got work as an actor not off-Broadway, or off-off Broadway, but way the hell off Broadway.

“When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I traveled the South with a touring children’s theater company called The Traveling Playhouse. When I say the South, we weren’t playing in Atlanta, we were playing Jasper, Alabama. We’d do six or seven shows in elementary school gymnasiums at about ten o’clock in the morning, then pile into a station wagon, and a van carrying the costumes and sets. We did The Wizard of OzRip Van Winkle, and Greensleeves. We were paid thirty dollars a performance.”
Aaron Sorkin
Zen and the Art of Screenwriting
Interview with William Froug
Page 31

Sorkin says he had no interest in writing until one day at a “Motel Six or something” somewhere in Georgia when, “I don’t know why, I all of a sudden felt like Sam Shepard. I felt like I ought to be writing something. That’s the first time that thought went into my head, and it just kept nagging at me and I just felt like a writer without ever having written anything.”

His first completed play was Hidden in This Picture, a single-scene one act play involving four characters. A few years later he found breakthrough success.

“His older sister, a naval lawyer, told him about a 1986 incident at the U.S. Marine base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when an informal disciplinary action had gotten out of hand, resulting in the death of a young soldier. Sorkin immediately recognized the possibilities of a courtroom drama based on the event. In November, 1989, his play, ‘A Few Good Men,’ about two naval lawyers defending two Marines accused of murdering a fellow corpsman, began a 14-month run on Broadway.”
Patrick Pacheco
1992 Los Angeles Times article 

That led to Sorkin writing the film version of A Few Good Men (1992) with a star cast that included Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, and Demi Moore. He would go on to win an Oscar award for writing The Social Network, and multiple Emmys for his work on The West Wing.

Now to come full circle, earlier this year NBC announced plans to stage a live version of A Few Good Men in early 2017.

I’m not saying all that wouldn’t have happened if Sorkin career path didn’t take to Jasper, Alabama and who knows where Georgia, but magical things can happen on the road—even in a Motel Six.

Dream big, start small.

P.S. Jasper, Alabama is also where stage and film actress Tallulah Bankhead spent some of her childhood, and where SciFy channels docuseries Town of the Living Dead was shot.

Related posts:
(Because I love writing about a sense of place, here’s some love I’ve written over the years centered around Alabama and Georgia.)

Alabama:
Tuscumbia to Hollywood
Muscle Shoals Music & Movie
Shooting a Feature Film in 4 Days
Postcard #82 (Selma)
Postcard #46 (Huntsville)
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisted’
Bama, Bobby & The U
Screenwriting from Huntsville, AL
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting 

Georgia:
25 Links Related to Blacks & Filmmaking
Postcard #43 (Savannah)
Postcard #35 (Villa Rica)
‘Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus’
Writing Quote #40 (Harry Crews)
Writing from Rural Georgia…to Dreamworks
Screenwriting, Baseball & Underdogs
Truett Cathy–Bird by Bird
Screenwriting Quote #70 (James Dickey)
Writing Quote #39 (Writing in Paris)
Shrimp, Giants & Tyler Perry
‘Super-Serving Your Niche’

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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The West Wing, BMWs & Iowa

“I love writing but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, ‘You have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over giftless.’”
Aaron Sorkin
Introduction to The West Wing Script Book

“[The West Wing] didn’t not test well. They let us make the pilot, it didn’t test horrendously, but it didn’t test through the roof. Then Warner Brothers, our studio, in order to convince NBC to put it on their schedule, to order 13 episodes of the show, they came up with a new testing sample that no one had tried before. It tested extremely well with four groups; households earning more than $75,000 a year, households where someone had four years of college, households where they subscribed to The New York Times, and the fourth  and this was a huge deal—remember West Wing went on the air in 1999—households that had home internet access. The reason that fourth one was big—now even one has internet access, but not in 1999—the reason why that fourth one was such a big deal was right in the middle of the dot com boom. And Warner Brothers and NBC were able to show these people where they could advertise. If you went back and watched old TV programs, not on DVD, were for dot coms.  You could see that more than half our ads were for doc coms and BMW. It was dot com and BMW why that show was on the air.”
Producer/writer/The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin
The Aspen Institute interview with David Brooks

The above video clip is from The West Wing episode from season one titled, In Excelsis Deo. Sorkin an co-writer Rick Cleveland earned an Emmy for that episode. Cleveland was a graduate of the Playwriting Workshop at the University of Iowa proving that after 8 1/2 years of blogging I have yet to exhaust the depth of talent that has flowed (even for just a season) through the great state of Iowa.

It’s worth noting that The West Wing debuted in 1999—the same year The Sopranos first aired. If you’re looking for an exact year when television entered its modern golden age, then 1999 is a pretty good year to pick. At the 52nd Primetime Emmy Awards in 2000, The West Wing edged out The Sopranos for Outstanding Drama Series. (Over their entire runs  The West Wing won 26 total Primetime Emmys, and The Sopranos 21.)   In the Writers Guild of America’s 101 Best Written TV Series listed The Sopranos was at # 1 and The West Wing at #10. Yes, 1999 was a very good year for setting the tone for the future of television.

P.S. Sorkin has also said that the person that first planted the seed for The West Wing idea was Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind). In a casual conversation with Sorkin, Goldsman pointed to a poster of The American President (written by Sorkin) saying it would make a good TV series, “If you concentrated on the senior staffers. Senior staffers at the White House, you’d be good at writing that series.”

And for throw-back Thursday here’s Screenwriting from Iowa muse—University of Iowa graduate and Oscar-winning screenwriter—Diablo Cody.

Diablo Cody poses backstage after winning an Oscar for best original screenplay for Juno at the 80th annual Academy Awards in Hollywood

Diablo Cody poses backstage after winning an Oscar for best original screenplay for “Juno” at the 80th annual Academy Awards, the Oscars, in Hollywood February 24, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES-OSCARS)

Related post:
Professor Aaron Sorkin
Sorkin on Revealing Character 
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“I love writing things that take place in workplaces. There’s sort of a common theme in the stuff that I’ve written which is it’s okay to be alone in a big city if you can find family at work. So I like workplaces. I like people who are really good at their job no matter what that job is. And I kind of like watching them do it…When I’m writing [fictional characters] I’m really mostly interested in honorable intentions. I’m mostly interested in the difference between, not good and bad, but good and great.”
Six-time Emmy Winning producer/writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing)
The Aspen Institute interview with David Brooks

Here’s Aaron Sorkin unpacking some of the obstacles The West Wing face on its road to becoming a successful TV program.

The West Wing is a good ‘nobody knows anything’ example because at the time you couldn’t do a show about Washington. You couldn’t do a show about politics. They tried a couple of times, television wasn’t going to come near it. Because in broadcast television the idea is to alienate as few people as possible. That’s why when you look at the early broadcast days of television sort of the Father Knows Best era into I Dream of Jeanie, and those kinds of shows, the big hit shows—nobody lived anywhere. They all lived in Springfield. The husband had a job—though we didn’t know what it was He was a businessman, sometimes he was in advertising—they didn’t have religion, they did have a salary, because they had to seem just like you. Television has a much different relationship with its audience than movies or plays do. It’s a much more intimate relationship ’cause television comes into your home, and it’s something you do frequently when you’re flipping through a magazine, talking on the phone, putting the kids to bed, making dinner, that kind of thing. So The West Wing wasn’t supposed to be a hit, or even get on the air. It was a fluke that it got on the air.”
Aaron Sorkin

Tomorrow we’ll look at that fluke (hint: it was this newfangled thing—in 1999—called the internet), but for now here are other Aaron Sorkin-created TV shows that featured dynamic workplaces that showcased his knack for witty dialogue.

Related post:
Film vs. TV Writing (10 Differences)
Screenwriting Quote of the Day #43 (Aaron Sorkin)
Professor Aaron Sorkin 

Scott W. Smith

 

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The extended title of this post could be called, Dramatic writers don’t all agree on various techniques, but when Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet and Paddy Chayefsky all basically agree on the same approach it’s wise to follow their lead—but I thought that was a little too wordy.

“Rather than tell the audience who the character is, I like to show the audience what a character wants. It all boils down to intentions and obstacles.  Somebody wants something; something is standing in their way of getting it. They want the girl, they want the money, they want to get to Philadelphia — it doesn’t matter, but they have to want it bad. If they need it, that’s even better. Something formidable is in standing in their way, and the tactics that character uses to overcome the obstacle is going to define who the character is. It’s like having a Christmas tree and then hanging ornaments on it…I worship at the temple of intention and obstacle. That’s the drive shaft of the car.”
Producer/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, West Wing)
The Aspen Institute interview with David Brooks

And if Sorkin, Mamet, and Chayefsky don’t sway you how about a Pixar example from the same interview?

“If you look at the characters in Toy Story, beginning with Woody on down, they had one big desire which was to be there for Andy. To fulfill their essence of a toy, which is to make him happy. A ton of obstacles were thrown at them. And their characters were defined by how they overcame them.”
Aaron Sorkin

P.S. Intentions and obstacles leads to Conflict-Conflict-Conflict and helps you follow Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule: Don’t be boring. And Intentions, obstacles, and conflict are all cousins of The Major or Central Dramatic Question.

Related posts:
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO (?)
Screenwriting Quote #94 (David Mamet)1. Who wants what from whom? 2. What happens of they don’t get it? 3. Why now?”
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6) “Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?” Paddy Chayefsky
‘There is only one plot’—A person, or group or an entity (an animal, or an alien, or whatever) wants something…” David Morrell
Character Introductions (Tip #71)
Show Don’t Tell
Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)
Writing the Pixar Way 

Scott W. Smith

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After the TV Sun Exploded

“Right now what the internet is capable of providing is growing, what TV is capable of holding on to is shrinking, but they haven’t met in the middle in any significant way. At some point I think they’ll have to. “
Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator)

Earlier this year I promised to write more posts that were TV/digital centered. Now that we’re in the second six months of the year I’ll try to do better than I did the first six months.

One of the problems is there is such a well-documented film history which to pull from in movies; all the film books, magazines, documentaries, commentaries, interviews, and scholarly writing just make it easier to write about.

But there is a doc on Netflix right now called Showrunner: The Art of Running a TV Show, written and directed by Des Doyle that is a great exploration into the modern world of television, and the changes that it’s going through. So for at least the next few posts I’ll be able to pull some quotes from it and hope that it sets the tone for the rest of the year to include more from the non-feature film world.

“The profusion of platforms, of channels of distribution, it’s all kind of exploding. It used to be that you could understand the television universe as a solar system. The sun was broadcast television, the three or four networks, and everything else was a satellite that traveled around the sun. and that clearly is no longer the model. The sun has exploded. And there are a lot of little solar systems being  set up. And the idea that we’ll ever have a coherent whole like that again.—I’m not sure we will.”
Emmy-winning producer Jeff Melvin (Northern Exposure)
Founder, WGA Showrunner Training Program

“I feel like what I do is secure in that I’m a writer first and foremost.  I’m going to want to write something for somebody and someone is going to want to make it. You know if I’m writing for something that’s just on the internet, that we’re just performing on something.com if I’m happy doing it and I can feed my family I’m happy doing that, too.”
Emmy-winning producer Ronald D. Moore
Developer/Showerrunner Battlestar Galactica

P.S. Man, Northern Exposure is one of my all time favorite TV shows. If you work in TV or just love the medium and know of some good resources online I welcome your suggestions.

Scott W. Smith

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