Archive for January, 2018

(Note: This is a reworking of a post originally written in 2008.)

“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.”
William Froug

In 2006 I did  a video shoot in Jackson, Mississippi and then had to drive to Atlanta for another shoot.  On that trip I decided to take a detour off the main highway so I could retrace the Selma to Montgomery march. (This shot was taken as I drove over the bridge in Selma, Alabama where the conflict known as Bloody Sunday occurred back in 1965.)


In route to Atlanta I learned that King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, had died and there would be a public viewing in Atlanta that weekend. I figured that was a more than amazing way to finish my civil rights tour and I took this photo of King’s hearse outside the State Capitol in downtown Atlanta.


Since this is a blog on screenwriting I’d like to address Martin Luther King Jr. from that perspective.

Let’s talk about the characters you chose to write about.

“Strong characters hold our interest in life and on the screen.”                       Andrew Horton, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay

It’s been said that drama favors the great saint or the great sinner.

We don’t have to go very far in theater, literature and film to see that this is true:

King Lear
Blanche DuBois
The Godfather
Scarlet O’Hara
James Bond
Mad Max
Lawrence of Arabia
The Wicked Witch of the West
Snow White
Norma Rae
William Wallace
Virgil Tibbs
Nurse Ratched
Darth Vader
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Norman Bates
Bonnie & Clyde
Alex Forrest (Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction)
Alonzo (Denzel Washington in Training Day)
The Joker (Heath Ledger iThe Dark Knight)

In fact, we might as well say that history favors the great saint or great sinner:

Joan of Ark
Al Capone
Pol Pot
Catherine the Great
Genghis Khan
Nelson Mandela

It’s been said that the History Channel should be called the Hitler Channel because he plays such a key role in many programs.

Certainly the words saint and sinner are religious in nature so let’s look there to see if it favors the great saint and the great sinner as far as being remembered:

Adam & Eve
Cain & Abel
King David
St. Augustine
Martin Luther
John Calvin
Mother Theresa
Jim Jones

How memorable are the characters you have created? Do you write characters that are as fascinating to watch as animals at the zoo? In the file under “Truth is stranger than fiction” check out the LA Times podcast Dirty Jim by Christopher Goffard and team to see one of the best accounts in the the last decade of a diabolical human being.

Of course, every character you write won’t be as fascinating as Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s Wall St. or Annie Wilkes in Misery, but your protagonist and antagonist must be somebody we are interested in investing two hours of hours of our lives. (They could be a shark, a robot, or a tornado as well, but whatever they are make them standout.) They don’t even have to shoot the bad guy at the end. Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull is a despicable character but man is he ever an interesting case study.

“I’m not interested in having to root for someone; I’m trying to get some sort of understanding as to what makes people tick and what they’re about.
Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, Basic Instinct

If you do write about a common person it’s best if you put them in an extraordinary situation. (Like Miss Daisy & Hoke’s relationship in Driving Miss Daisy centered around a changing world, or Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest who must run for his life. And let’s not forget the quintessential common man Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman who is a mirror for all humanity that faces living, as Thoreau said, “lives of quite desperation.”

The truth is it’s easier to write a strong bad guy than a strong good guy. For every Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) there are probably three Norman Bates (Psycho). (And actors love to play a good bad people.) And basic dramatic structure dictates that when you throw your protagonist and antagonist into the ring it should be a fair battle.

Look at Steven Spielberg films and you’ll find a long list of really bad people and creatures.

And here’s a secret. Many great characters are a mix of saint and sinner. Isn’t there a Jekyll and Hyde in all of us? Don’t we love to go to movies and watch characters wrestle with life, with themselves? (Heck, even Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell characters are really wrestling with life.)

Showing that struggle is part of what makes your characters engaging and memorable. It gives your characters dimension.

“It’s rare that you find three-dimensional characters in a writing sample, and when you do, it’s obvious that’s a writer you want to work with.”  Paramount Story Editor 

So as you hear the stories about Martin Luther King Jr. today ask yourself what was it about this man and his work that made him memorable. What obstacles did he have to overcome? How did his character respond to the set-backs? And how in the years after his death has his work been relevant in shaping America today?

The debates I’ve heard on the radio programs have given answers all over the map. Great characters are not lukewarm.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has not been realized, but it’s a great dream, and I believe great strides have been made over the years.

P.S. And since it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day here’s a quote:

“Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.” 
Martin Luther King Jr.
1967 speech to Barratt Junior High School students

Related posts:
Martin Luther King Jr. Special
25 Links Related to Blacks and Filmmaking
The First Black Feature Filmmaker

Scott W. Smith

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I’ll continue my run of posts on writer/director Greta Gerwig tomorrow but wanted to share a photo I took yesterday of a nicer than average Florida sunset.

As I driving east toward downtown Orlando I saw a man looking to the west with his camera pointed at the sky. “What’s that dude taking pictures of?” I wondered. When I looked into my review mirror I saw the sunset.

Knowing that sunsets fade quickly and that I needed something in the foreground. I drove about 100 yards and just stopped my car in the middle of the street by the Orlando City Stadium and got this shot with my iPhone.


Scott W. Smith

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The way I write is to allow myself to do things kind of unconsciously, and then I try to craft them after I’ve done it unconsciously. I have the distinct experience of tapping into something where I can just write, and write, and write, and it doesn’t feel like I’m doing the choosing of the words. I’m sure everyone who writes at some point feels like that. And then I come back to it later and it’s almost a sense of I don’t know who wrote this. And now I have to make it into something that has form. There’s an odd disconnect with it because in a way it’s like you found something that someone’s left. There are moments where once I start structuring those things and making them have more form then I have to move it from A to B and I do have some teeth pulling moments of getting the story down. But for the most part it comes down like that.

“So in some ways I have this strange experience with a script of knowing that it works on the page but also I have a certain amount of mystery to what I’m saying and how these characters function. And when I have great actors they give me amore understanding of what it is I’ve written. And that informs how I’m going to direct it.”
Writer/director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird)
Marc Maron Podcast interview

Related post: Where Do Ideas Come From?

Scott W. Smith

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Here’s a quote from back in 2013—a few years before Greta Gerwig made her directorial debut with Lady Bird. (A film that just won Golden Globe awards for Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture.)

“[Directing] was never something I realized I could do for a long time, and I don’t know why exactly, but I just never thought that I would be able to or that I’d never be any good at it, and I think I no longer believe that. …To be honest it’s a lame excuse, but it just seems very male, and it seems like it was just something that men said they wanted to do in college. I didn’t really know any women who said they wanted to do it. It wasn’t until really being out in the world and meeting filmmakers like Lynn Shelton and Lena Dunham and Liz Meriwether, who’s a writer, and Diablo Cody, and there’s so many of them that I didn’t know them. And it wasn’t until meeting them that I think, in my 20s, that I had built up a reserve of confidence and a feeling like it’s not just a boy’s club.”
Greta Gerwig
Miami NewTimes interview with

Related post:
The Fox, the Farm, & the Fempire
Woman of Steel
Lena Dunham, Sundance, & Iowa
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)

Scott W. Smith

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Juno Meets Lady Bird

“Sacramento is the Midwest of California.”
Lady Bird

Ten years ago this month I launched this blog after seeing the movie Juno. Diablo Cody ended up winning an Oscar for writing the Juno screenplay about a pregnant high school student. Last night Lady Bird’s writer, Greta Gerwig, won a Golden Globe award for best musical or comedy.

I’m sure someone out there has pointed out the similarities (and differences) between Juno and Lady Bird. They’re at least film cousins. And there’s no reason that its success doesn’t translate into an Oscar-nomination or two for Gerwig.

I think I’ll spend a few days pulling some quotes from Gerwig as she talks about her screenwriting process.

“In the first line of the script, I wrote: ‘Marion is making the bed in the hotel room,’ because even though it’s such a little moment, it says everything about Marion’s character and who she is. I like to look at behaviors that only a specific type of person would do, and to me, this tells me that Marion is a person who takes care of things. She is a mother. The only person in the world who makes a hotel room bed, is a mother — and one from a particular generation.”
Greta Gerwig
Script magazine interview with Andrew  Bloomenthal

Here’s a link to the entire Lady Bird script. What an incredible year end of the year A24 had with the release of The Florida Project, The Disaster Artist, and Lady Bird. 

P.S. Those of you who are long time readers know that when I started blogging I intended to turn this into a book. I am finally in the final stages of doing so and if you have the time please vote here on the book cover you prefer.

Related posts:

Juno has Another Baby (Emmy)
The Juno—Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith



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“I had a wonderful teacher, Irwin Blacker, and he was feared by everyone at the school because he took a very interesting position. He gave you the screenplay form, which I hated so much, and if you made one mistake on the form, you flunked the class. His attitude was that the least you can learn is the form. ‘I can’t grade you on the content. I can’t tell you whether this is a better story for you to write than that, you know? And I can’t teach you how to write the content, but I can certainly demand that you do it in the proper form.’ He never talked about character arcs or anything like that; he simply talked about telling a good yarn, telling a good story. He said, ‘Do whatever you need to do. Be as radical and as outrageous as you can be. Take any kind of approach you want to take. Feel free to flash back, feel free to flash forward, feel free to flash back in the middle of a flashback. Feel free to use narration, all the tools are there for you to use.’ I used to tell a screenwriting class, ‘I could teach you all the basic techniques in fifteen minutes. After that, it’s up to you.’”
Screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now )
Creative Screenwriting, March/April 2000

Related posts:

Screenwriting #142 (Irwin R. Blacker)
The Four Functions of Dialogue 
Screenwriting Quote #14 (Irwin R. Blacker)

Scott W. Smith

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The Florida Project 2.0


Happy New Year

Yesterday after the University of Central Florida’s football team beat Auburn in the Peach Bowl it completed UCF head coach Scott Frost’s Florida project. If  their season was a movie you’d write it off as a sports cliche.

Frost took over a program that was 0-12 just two years ago and turned them into Conference and Peach Bowl champs— and a perfect 13-0 record. They were the only Division 1A team to finish undefeated this year. (But because they are not in a powerhouse conference they did not get a shot at being national champions.)

This morning I went through an old box of memorabilia and found a ticket from a UCF football game I attended as a teenager. It was back when they were a division III school. They did give scholarships back then and I don’t image there were many people in the stands.

But almost 40 years later they are getting their time in the national spotlight.

They’ve had some good seasons over the years, but nothing like what they completed yesterday. Since an old 45 “Hotel California” record by the Eagles was in the same box as the ticket I decided that’d make a nice background. (Any metaphor with Auburn’s  War Eagle cry was a happy accident.)

Congrats to the UCF football team.

My own project is in the works down here in Florida and I hope to make an announcement about it this week.

Scott W. Smith


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