Archive for August, 2016

“In life I wasn’t funny. I felt on stage or in movies I could do whatever I wanted. I was free.”
Gene Wilder


It’s hard to write something about Gene Wilder that hasn’t been written since he passed away two years ago. But I’d like to touch on his Midwestern roots and how he found small victories on his way to greater success. After all, that is a key aspect of this blog all these years.

Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. As a youth, he entertained his mother with humor to try and help ease the pressure of her bad health. He began studying acting at 13, his older actress sister got him a spot doing summer stock when he was 16, and when he was 18 he followed her theatrical path and attended the University of Iowa because of its reputable theater program.

He was in four plays his freshman year alone (Note: It’s not easy to get stage time as a freshman in top drama programs), and graduated in 1955. Kim Howard Johnson’s book The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close mentions that Del Close claimed to have been a roommate of Wilder’s at Iowa. Wilder didn’t mention that in his autobiography, but they were within a year of each other age wise and did both attend Iowa so it’s possible.

If true, it certainly would have made for an incubator of creativity. While Wilder would go on to Broadway and Hollywood success, Close would make his impact mostly in Chicago being a early part of improv (Second City/Upright Citizens Brigade) and whose students included; Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chris Farley,  Mike Myers, John Candy, Jon Favreau, Tina Fey,  Harold Ramis, John Belushi, and Gilda Radner (who would eventually marry Gene Wilder).

“Many have called Del Close the most important comedy figure of the last fifty years whom you’ve never hear of.”
Kim Howard Johnson

Close was only at Iowa one semester, but I’d like to believe that he and Wilder had some late night discussions in Iowa City about “pure imagination,” in the Willy Wonka sense.

The first time I saw Wilder was in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when I was ten years old. Watching Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Silver Steak and Stir Crazy are like entertaining sign posts through my middle school and high school years. In a time before cable and the Internet—and back when hit movies had lines to get in—Wilder was memorable because he made me laugh.

But he wasn’t Steve Martin funny. And when you look at the path he took after Iowa and you seem to see a disconnect—until you learn that Wilder said seeing Lee J. Cobb in Death of a Salesman was what made him want to become an actor. Wilder went to New York and studied with Lee Strasberg (where Wilder said he was only two actors out of 1,200 accepted into the actors studio when he applied).

He yearned to be a serious actor.

Opportunities in off-Broadway and Broadway plays brought him into contact with the person he claimed would change the direction of his career.

“I was miscast in that production [of Mother Courage and Her Children] … but it was with Anne Bancroft, whose boyfriend at the time was Mel Brooks, and that made my — I can’t say my day, it made my life, in a way.”
Gene Wilder
NPR/Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross 

Wilder co-starred in The Producers (1967) which Mel Brooks produced and directed. They team up again on Young Frankenstein (written by Wilder) and on Blazing Saddles (where Wilder was The Waco Kid).

The disconnect: Wilder was seriously funny.

So while Wilder was influenced by the seriousness of playwright Arthur Miller, he also wrote in his autobiography that another giant influence was Charlie Chaplin. He specifically points out the brilliance Chaplin in the hot dog scene from The Circus (1928).

“The acting lesson from this film seems so simple, yet inspired me for the rest of my career: if the thing you’re doing is really funny, you don’t need to ‘act funny’ while doing it.”
Gene Wilder
Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art

Wilder wrote, directed, and starred in movies through the 80s, but seemed to walk away from Hollywood after his wife, Gilda Radner, died in 1989. But he had a great over ten year run that included his best work with Brooks and Richard Pryor, and as Willy Wonka, and that brought me some of the greatest joys of childhood and teenage years.

P.S. The University of Iowa is home to the The Gene Wilder Papers. And a nice Iowa tie-in is Cloris Leachman, who plays Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein, was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa.

Scott W. Smith

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“Always and consciously, I try to hook the audience in the first five minutes. I want them right from the start to feel something—BOOM! I want an explosion right at the beginning. I always want that.”
Writer/actor Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein)

Between the years that playwright Tennessee Williams and screenwriter Diablo Cody graduating from the University of Iowa there was this quirky actor named Gene Wilder who also studied theater and communications and graduated from the Iowa City school on his way to becoming a Hollywood star and playing the iconic character Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971).

More about Wilder and his career tomorrow.

Scott W. Smith

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On the way to becoming an Oscar Award winning screenwriter Murray Schisgal served in the military during World War II, was a mediocre musician (but good enough to be in a band), a failed novelist, a bored lawyer, and a part-time teacher before finding the seeds of success in having some one-act plays produced off-Broadway.

The takeaway today from Schisgal is every writer faces long odds against them, but the good news is—in face of a long line of people who can reject your work—all you need to do is to find one fan/one cheerleader of your writing.

“I sent the plays [The Typist and The Tiger] to the Phoenix Theatre Company. Someone who worked there, by the name of Claire Nichtern, read these plays and liked The Typist and The Tiger very much, but the people who ran the group didn’t like the plays. Miss Nichtern was a friend of Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, she showed the plays to them and they said they would do it, and Claire Nichtern decided to produce them herself and that’s how it happened. It was all through the mail.”
Murray Schisgal
NYPL Digital Collections

Somewhere around that time in the early 1960s Schisgal also found a fan of his work in an up and coming actor named Dustin Hoffman, which would begin a long collaboration with him on various projects including Tootsie.

Way to go Claire. May you find a Claire to embrace your work.

Schisgal followed the success of his one-act plays with the play LUV on Broadway. It was released as a feature film in 1967 starring Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, and Elaine May…and an uncredited part for another up and coming actor named Harrison Ford.

P.S. Claire Nichtern benefited from helping launch Schigal’s career. She had begun as a receptionist at the Phoenix Theatre Company and rose to casting director. After embracing and producing Schisgal’s one-act plays, in 1965 she won a Tony Award for producing Schisgal’s play Luv. After her death in 1994, The New York Times Obituary stated; “From 1979 to 1985 Ms. Nichtern was president of Warner Theater Productions, a division of Warner Communications. During that period she produced over 30 plays and musicals for Warner, among them Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley, which won a Pulitzer Prize.”

Scott W. Smith


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The writer that probably first comes to mind when you think about the modern classic film Tootsie is Larry Gilbert. But the co-writer of the script was Murray Schisgal. The Oscar and Tony-nominated Schisgal was born in Brooklyn and turns 90 in November. He had his Broadway debut in 1965 with a play he’d written called Luv.

I tracked down an interview he did in 1992 for the theater collection of the American Jewish Committee Oral History Library. Ruth Simon asked Murray this question; “Mr. Schisgal, you are as prolific as any playwright today. What brought you to the theater?”

“Frustration, bitterness and hate for my fellow human beings. I started out writing novels and short stories and I could not get any of it published and so, out of frustration, I started writing plays, being ill prepared to do so, having taken no classes or doing anything other than reading plays, reading every play I could get my hands on. I didn’t even go to the theater that much. But nonetheless, the first plays I wrote included The Tiger and The Typist and I was able to get them produced within a short period and so my future was cast.”
Murray Schisgal
NYPL Digital Collections

I’m not sure how long Schisgal toiled in writing novels and short stories, but he said he began writing plays in 1958, and his Oscar-nomination for Toostie that hot theaters in 1982—so put that down as a 25-year dramatic writing journey to hit that plateau.

He also spent time in the South Pasific after he joined the Navy as a teenager during World War II. And he attended college and law school and worked as a lawyer for a couple of years before realizing he couldn’t practice law and commit enough time to writing. So he quit law and got a part time job to “pay the bills” and found he was able to write three or four hours a day.

His approach to writing was instinctual and self-taught so he shunned learning from teachers or books on writing. He admitted that lead to some sloppy work, but added “I would rather write and throw it away than go through all the steps that are asked for in some of these books I’ve read about how to go about writing a play.”

He was 31 when his first play was produced, but he didn’t start making a living until he was 35 or 36 year old. Find what path works for you. And when you get discouraged remember Schisgal saying “I started out writing novels and short stories and I could not get any of it published.” But he kept writing—and switched to writing plays—and eventually people started noticing his work.

But thanks for the inspiration Mr. Schisgal, because you’ve shown you can be “ill prepared” for the writing task (not even taken a writing class) and still find a way to capture the magic. And his personal story also shows that it can take a little time.

P.S. And as a follow-up to yesterday’s post (How to Get an Agent), UTA agent Peter Dodd said in the Scriptnotes podcast that he does read plays looking for that unique voice that he can rep for TV and film projects.

Related post:
Tootsie at 30

Scott W. Smith



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“Be so good they can’t ignore you.
Steve Martin

Getting an agent is easy. The actual process I mean;  Script read. Phone call made.

After you’ve written a screenplay that captures the attention of someone influential in the film business. (BTW-That’s the hard part. The part that took Oscar winning screenwriter Michael Arndt ten years to accomplish.) That influential person—a studio executive, repped writer, established actor, whoever— will pass your script to an agent.

“There was a [new writer] sent to me last year. The executive that I like said to me, ‘Managers are chasing this person. He’s meeting with 15 different managers over the next two weeks. This is a hot script, you should read it right away.’ I read it that night. I reached out to the writer….For us and for new clients, it’s all about voice. Do you have a voice? It doesn’t matter if the voice is in the most uncommercial script in the world. That could still be an amazing voice. We can take and use that unconventional, uncommercial script and launch them into the stratosphere as a cool writer.”
UTA agent Peter Dodd
Scriptnotes interview with John August & Craig Mazin

If a script/voice resonates with Dodd, he said in that informative podcast interview that he’ll sometimes contact a writer he’s interested in representing right away, even if it’s Saturday or Sunday. He’ll cold call, email, Tweet the writer, Google search, or stalk them on Facebook. He will find them and let them know right away that he appreciates their work.

That’s how easy it is to get an agent.

Related posts:
The 99% Focus Rule
Outsider Paul Haggis and Your Voice
Finding Your Voice
Scott W. Smith



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Jamaica’s six gold medals at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games matched what its athletes did at the 2008 Beijing Games. That made me think of a post I wrote in 2008 on Jamaica and I thought it was worth reposting today as a reminder of how small places foster talent that can perform on a world stage:

“Little Jamaica — our country is blessed with some of the best, if not the best, talent you can find.”
Olivia Grange,
Jamaica’s minister of sport

Chances are when you think of movies and Jamaica Cool Runnings comes to mind. (If you’re old school you may remember that part of Sean Connery’s first Bond film, Dr. No, was filmed in Jamaica.)  But my interest in connecting screenwriting and Jamaica has to do with the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Not to take away from Baltimore’s Michael Phelps’ outstanding achievement of winning eight gold medals in Beijing, but I can’t get over the fact that over the weekend Jamaican athletes won gold in the men and women’s 100 meter sprint.

Usain Bolt did it in world record speed on the male side and on the female side Jamaican runners collected all the medals. ESPN dubbed Jamaica “World’s Fastest Nation.”

What is most amazing to me about this feat is that the total population of Jamaica is under 3 million compared to over 300 million for the United States. (And there are a few other countries at the Olympics as well.) Another way to look at it is Iowa also has three million people. This is really at the heart what Screenwriting from Iowa is all about. That amazing things can come from little places.

But amazing things don’t come out of thin air. If you look beyond Jamaica’s gold medals you will find the secret to how a small impoverished island ended up on top the world stage.  Matthew Clark wrote an insightful article on this titled a couple of months ago, How Tiny Jamaica Developed So Many Champion Sprinters. Like champion long distances runners from Kenya and Ethiopia the key word there is developed.

Anthony Davis, the sports director at Jamaica’s University of Technology (UTECH), whose programs and facilities developed Bolt told Clark, “You’d have had to plant a seed long ago to get where we are today.”

Davis helped start the school because traditionally Jamaica’s best athletes left the country to compete for colleges in the United States. And though the program is looking golden now, its original vision was doubted and even today its facilities are still second-rate compared to the US.   According to Davis, “We had a choice: complain about the resources and do nothing or work with what we have.”

Clark’s article points out; Another reason for Jamaicans’ success: their attitude, according to  (Fitz) Coleman ( a technical coach on Bolt’s team) “We genuinely believe that we’ll conquer,” he says. “It’s a mindset. We’re small and we’re poor, but we believe in ourselves.”

A couple years ago I shot a documentary in Jamaica and spent a few days in Kingston far away from the other side of the island where tourist usually spend their time on peaceful beaches. We were told not to walk outside the barbed wire topped walls of our hotel at night and that the murder rate per capita was higher than Haiti.

The economics of the area are poor — in fact one home we shot in would be the equivalent of a large tool shed in the States-no air and and no bathroom. But I found the people warm and friendly, and the music, food, culture and history totally captivated me.

We did take time to tour the Bob Marley Museum in the home where he used to live and it is a must see for reggae fans. Nothing quite brightens driving on snowy freezing day in Iowa as listening to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” (But even if a white guy from Iowa likes reggae music, it may be a sin for him to wear a traditional Jamaican hat. At least I didn’t get the one with fake dredlocks for the full Rastafarian poser look. Just doing my part to help the economy there.)

And just how has a little island again produced such memorable music? No, I’m not thinking about the herbs Marley had in his spliff. Once again talent, training and time are the key.

Believe it or not there is actually a strong connection between Jamaica’s musical heritage and a school run by Catholic nuns. The Sisters of Mercy founded the Alpha Boys’ School in 1892 to house and educate “wayward boys’ from poor families in Jamaica. Music was a key part of their education.

An interesting read on this is Tracing reggae’s Catholic roots by Thomas Green.

“Without the school, there just wouldn’t have been the blossoming of talent on the island in the key period of the `60s and `70s,” says Laurence Cane-Honeysett, a music consultant to reggae label Trojan Records, who has compiled the excellent album Alpha Boys’ School: Music in Education 1910-2006.

“When the Jamaican music industry took off, it was totally dependent on those who studied there,” he says.

So wherever you are in your screenwriting journey I hope you can be inspired by the small island of Jamaica and its recent gold medal achievements. And whether you live in West Des Moines, West Africa, or West Covina I hope you remember the words of Jamaican sports director Anthony Davis, “We had a choice: complain about the resources and do nothing or work with what we have.”

August 22, 2008 Update
In the last couple days the men and women’s Jamaican track team left no questions in regard to their dominance as they claimed gold medals in every single Olympic individual sprinting event. Anyone working on the script on the life of three time gold medalist and world record holder Usain Bolt’s life story yet?

To put Jamaica’s achievements in perspective, they ended up with six gold medals. It was estimated that for China to have won the same amount of gold medals per capita that they would have had to won 2,889 gold medals. So pop open a Red Stripe for the little guys this week.

(It was also great to see Iowa’s own Shawn Johnson—who just happens to be from West Des Moines— win a gold on the balance beam.)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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The 2016 Rio Olympics closing ceremony ended yesterday with many memorable moments over the past two weeks including three more gold medals for Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. So I thought it would be fitting to re-post what I wrote about Bolt after he won three gold medals four years ago:

“I would say I’m the greatest.”
Usain Bolt

“This is very good for the country.”
Portia Simpson—Miller
Prime Minister of Jamaica after the 200m Olympic finals

Jamaica stunned the world yesterday. Taking home the gold, silver, and bronze in the men’s 200-metres finals at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

I haven’t written about this year’s Olympics, because I hadn’t found any motivation to connect it to screenwriting.  Then suddenly a bolt of inspiration hit me. And not just as in Usain Bolt being dubbed the fastest man ever after he became the first person ever to win the 100m & the 200m races in back to back Olympics. But because of Jamaica’s historic 1,2,3 finish in the 200m race.

Think about that—The population of Jamaica is smaller than the population of the state of Iowa. In other words, a country of less than 3 million people had three sons in one race who were faster than the other 7 billion people living on this planet. Sprinters Bolt, Yohan Blake, and Warren Weir walked away with the medals sweep.

That doesn’t happen by accident. Four year’s ago in the post Screenwriting Jamaican-Olympic Style, I wrote about the long establish training tradition that has made Jamaica such a force in the men’s and women’s track & field. And the connection to screenwriting and filmmaking is some incredible things can happen in small tucked away places, but they are years in the making.

Remember I launched this blog in January of 2008 after seeing Juno and learning about a Minneapolis screenwriter (Diablo Cody) who wrote that script in the suburbs of Minneapolis. In the post Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours, I mentioned that while it was Cody’s first screenplay it followed 15 years of creative writing everyday . (Including four years of writing while at the University of Iowa.)

Yesterday all the talk about Bolt and the one time fastest man in the world, Carl Lewis, reminded me that I once stood next to greatness. It was 1987 at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, California. Lewis had won four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and would later be named by Sports Illustrated “Olympian if the Century.” I was a cameraman shooting footage with an Eclair NPR 16mm camera as Lewis performed “one of the most outstanding individual performances ever witnessed at the Relays, as all six of his leaps in the long jump exceeded 28 feet.” I was 25 years old, the exact age of Lewis—and the exact age of Bolt.

What’s fun about writing this blog is the little connections I can make from time to time. While I’ve been able to parlay a love of photography, movies, and a film school degree into a lifelong career in production—even got to shoot a documentary in Kingston, Jamaica back in ’06—I would never confuse what I do with what Billy Wilder and Paddy Chayefsy did or what Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin do today. But my little successes (and failures) make me appreciate those with huge talent backed up by outrageous success. And the hope that we all have is that we can learn from the great ones (and even the less than great ones) and it will improve our work.


Scott W. Smith

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“To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it’s usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It’s not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can’t tell if it’s going to be good until you’re really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you…I register the danger that it might not work. But honestly sometimes you have to just do it. There are definitely interviews that we all go into knowing, ‘Ehhhhh , here’s all the things that can go wrong and here’s the one or two things that it can go right.’ And you just gotta do it…I had this experience a couple of years ago where I got to sit in on the editorial meeting at the Onion . Every Monday they have to come up with like 17 or 18 headlines, and to do that, they generate 600 headlines per week. I feel like that’s why it’s good: because they are willing to be wrong 583 times to be right 17. It kind of gives you hope. If you do creative work, there’s a sense that inspiration is this fairy dust that gets dropped on you, when in fact you can just manufacture inspiration through sheer brute force. You can simply produce enough material that the thing will arrive that seems inspired.”
Ira Glass, Host & Executive Producer of This American Life
Interview with Kathryn Schulz

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Inevitability vs. Predictability

“In a well-made drama, I want to feel:  ‘Of course—that’s where it was heading all along.’ And yet the inevitability mustn’t eliminate surprise. There’s not much point in spending two hours on something that became clear in the first five minutes. Inevitability doesn’t mean predictability. The script must still keep you off balance, keep you surprised, entertained, involved, and yet, when the denouement is reached, still give you the sense that the story had to turn out that way.”
Dog Day Afternoon director Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Making Movies, page 31

Related posts:
Magnetic Endings
Insanely Great Endings
Insanely Great Endings (Part 2)
Earn Your Ending 

Scott W. Smith

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“I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”
Elon Musk


Over the weekend I was on the Space Coast of Florida, but was asleep when the SpaceX Falcon 9 took off from Cape Canaveral at 1:26 a.m. Sunday. But a photographer friend, Domonic Agostini was not only awake but positioned on the beach at Patrick Air Force based to capture this great photo. And he’s allowed me to post it here. (To license this photo or contact him for a shoot, you can reach him though his website www.dominicphoto.com.)

If you’ve followed the SpaceX program you know that like many tricky endeavors it has faced many successes and failures since founder (and Tesla CEO) Elon Musk launched the company in 2002.

Screenwriting and filmmaking may not be as dangerous as space travel, but it’s tricky business and here are just a few quotes over the years from this blog that show how failure has been handled by those who’ve had glowing success.

Facing the Possibility of Failure (Edward Burns)
Tennessee Williams on ‘Apparent Failure’
Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Commitment in the Face of Failure (Oscar winner Michael Arndt)
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

P.S. One of the great visual and visceral examples of failure is from the movie The Right Stuff in the following sequence that NASA went through on its quest to successfully put a man on the moon.

Scott W. Smith






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