Archive for April, 2018

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This morning I saw on Facebook (where I stole the photo above) that Cydney Kelley won a Daytime Emmy last night as one of the writers on Days of Our Lives. 

I met writer Cydney in either 2003 or 2004 in the first or second year of my decade living in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She lived in Santa Monica and made occasional trips back home to see her parents and friends.

She spent many years as a writer’s assistant including work on The Game that was shot in Atlanta, and where she worked with Kenya Barris who would go on to create Black-ish. 

Congrats Cydney.





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The Rise of Regional Cinema

“I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa.”
Artist Grant Wood

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Stone City by Grant Wood

Note: I don’t have the time to do this post justice, but I want to get in out there because it’s so timely to the success of A Quiet Place this month. I’ll try to update it when I have more time.

You may have seen a painting by Grant Wood titled American Gothic—it’s only one of the most recognized paintings in the history of painting.  (And along with the Mona Lisa, probably the most parodied.) What you may not know is that small farmhouse is in Eldon, Iowa and is now a part of a small museum there.

Wood painted that painting in his small studio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and the rest is well-documented history. For a couple of years back in the 1930s, he was part of a short-lived artist colony in Stone City, Iowa depicted in his painting above.

He would later teach at the University of Iowa. The same school where playwright Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire), and screenwriters Diablo Cody (Juno), and Scott Beck & Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) all earned there bachelor’s degrees. As well as a long distinguished list of writers who did their master’s with the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

There’s some special mojo going on in that area. In fact, I did the rough not-to-scale map below (yes, Bettendorf should be west of the Mississippi River) that basically covers a two-hour radius from Iowa City where the University of Iowa is located.  From 2003 to 2013 I lived in this zone of creativity and I’m not surprised that the A Quiet Place has its roots there.

I’ve either judged or had films in four film festivals located in this zone. There’s a lot filmmaking talent in the area. Most will never have the off-the-chart success that Woods/Beck but it’s not a total surprise.


When Beck and Woods talk about plan-B of shooting A Quiet Place in Iowa if they couldn’t get anyone in Hollywood interested, that doesn’t mean that it was going to be two guys on a farm with iPhones. (Though I’m sure they could have pulled that off, too.) No, they have a real support based in the Quad Cities on the Iowa/Illinois border.

If you check out their Bluebox Films website you’ll see some photos of some rather large casts and crews they’ve assembled for various productions. One connection I have with them is grip/ job operator Jon Van Allen who has a very extensive grip truck. Below is a production from way back in 2009 that I directed using Van Allen’s Jimmy Jib in a loft in Cedar Falls, IA.

beam 2020.jpg

Chicago is around 2 hours from Bettendorf so some of the locally-based talent is able to hone their craft there. And Eastern Iowa is just one pocket in the county where filmmakers are doing work on a regional level. Think of them like regional bands or community theater actors.

When I left Cedar Falls five years ago I think there were five establish college or community theaters. One of the actors that rose out of that talent pool is Sam Lilja
who is currently an understudy in the Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh starring Denzel Washington.


In some other pockets of the world I have no doubt that someone is going to take Blackmagic’s new 4K pocket camera (or some other camera) and make some inroads that puts another unusual place on the map. No one is saying that this a sure path to greater financial success, but I do think regional filmmaking is on the rise in a way mirrors what regional bands and community theaters have been doing for years.

If you have a desire to help out local filmmakers in your area here’s a helpful exchange between indie producer Keith Calder and John August.

 I actually do think that if you live really anywhere in the world and you want to be a producer, I do think that your best step forward is to go to your local film festivals. Wherever you live there’s probably one within driving distance. And see what the local talent base is like and see if you can build a local filmmaking community of some sort and make movies that way. I don’t think that that is necessarily a path to financial success and kind of success within the larger industry, but it is a path to working within the arts and making movies in the same way that I think if you want to do theatre you can go be in your local theatre production. You shouldn’t have an expectation that that’s going to lead to you starring in a play on Broadway.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making regional cinema. I think that’s actually a great way for people to spend their time. And I think you can do really cool work that can expand way beyond that. But I do think that the arts has a tendency to look at the absolute most success and then say, “Well how do I get to that?” And there’s very rarely a real path to that other than doing what you can do as well as you can.
Keith Calder interview with John August on Scriptnotes (Ep. 343)

Scott W. Smith

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“Being in Iowa gives you a unique point of view inherently. Embrace that.”
Bryan Woods
Alumni filmmakers Scott Beck, Bryan Woods strike deal with Paramount Pictures

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Screenwriters Scott Beck & Bryan Woods

Box Office Mojo had A Quiet Place stepping back into the top of the box office over the weekend and crossing the $200 million mark worldwide. Pretty amazing for a non-franchise that cost $17 million to make.

Congrats to both Scott Beck and Bryan Woods who originally wrote the script, and to John Kransinki who directed the film and honed the script.

Because Beck and Woods are from Bettendorf, Iowa (and are familiar with this blog) this is as good a time as any to make them the poster boys for “Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places” (even if they’re in their 30s now). They join Oscar-winning Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody who I named years ago as the poster girl for the blog.

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It just so happens that Beck, Woods, and Cody are all graduates of the University of Iowa. I’ve been asked if I teach at U-Iowa (or was when I lived in Iowa) or was a student there and the answer is no and no. I have no connection at all to the University of Iowa.

I simply started this little blog in 2008 after seeing Juno and here we are a decade later. It just so happens that the University of Iowa turns out some talented people.

Related posts:

The Juno-Iowa Connection
Postcard #55 (Iowa Writers’ Workshop Library)
David Lynch in Iowa
John Irving, Iowa & Writing
Yawn…Another Pulitzer Prize (University of Iowa grads)


Scott W. Smith

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On Wednesday A Quiet Place was back at the number one position for the day. And Box Office Mojo expects A Quiet Place to finish this weekend in the number #1 slot. Pretty remarkable given its a non-franchise film going into its third week in theaters.

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How do you create something these days that rises above all the noise competing for our entertainment time? All the broadcast and cable TV shows and Internet options? How do you get people to put down their video game controllers and actually go to a movie theater?

To use an old expression, “sometimes when people are shouting you have to whisper to be heard.” That’s what John Krasinski, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck did with A Quiet Place. 

In a WGA Q&A here’s how Woods and Beck explain how they developed A Quiet Place before Krasinski came on board to bring his sensibilities to the script and direction. (This is a lightly edited version of the Beck/Woods exchange.)

Scott Beck: We wrote a 15-page proof of concept just to see if this would work. Maybe this will read really boring but let’s try it.

Bryan Woods: It was a proof of concept in two ways. On some level, we thought we could make a short film out of it. But it ended up being more as writers, “What’s this thing going to look like on the page? How do you communicate motivation? How do you communicate backstory, intent, and what characters want without using dialogue? Is it going to be readable?”

Scott: One of the scripts that we studied was Walter Hill and David Giler had written a draft of Alien—it’s incredibly sparse. The writing is very specific and economical. Another recent example is Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler script. It’s like line of description, line of  description. It doesn’t really have traditional location slugs, it’s very visual how it’s written.  So we were kind of like, let’s screw all the rules of screenwriting and start putting images in this.  And we knew because this film would be very sound heavy we were like how do we convey that on the page? And there were pages where we’d literally have one word that was conveying how loud a sound would be. And we were playing with the font sizes. For instance, the quieter that a sound got or the quieter that character had to be we’d shrink the font size. 

Bryan: So we were gimmicky and we kind of hated ourselves for doing it. But we really wanted to make sure that producers, and eventually the studio, understood that this was going to be unlike any movie you’ve ever seen. We really wanted to communicate the silent film experience.

Scott: The very first draft that we’d written actually only had one line of dialogue. Like three words [of dialogue] in it entirely. It played really, really silently. But it was like 67 pages. So even when we had the script finalized, we were like what are people going to think of this? We’ve written a pilot script or something, right?

We now know audiences and critics think quite highly of the finished version.

Related posts:

Rules, Breaking Rules, No Rules
‘There are no rules’
There are no rules, but…

Scott W. Smith


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Just as Sean Baker talked about the unusual influence of The Littel Rascals on his indie film The Florida Project, screenwriter Scott Beck talks about the unusual influence of the origins of the monster movie A Quiet Place. 

It started with Charlie Chaplin—and I’m 100% serious. In college, we were watching a lot of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton [movies]. And one of our favorites is a French filmmaker named Jacques Tati. And the thing about Jacques Tati is he was working in an era of when there was sound so his films may be dialogue free, but he’s using sound in ways that’s extremely comical or enlighting, or would tell something about who the character is. [So we thought] what if we combine that with our love of Alien, and of Jaws, and these incredible genre films that were not only rich in being terrifying but also really rich in character, too.
Scott Beck (who co-wrote A Quiet Place with Bryan Woods and John Krasinski)
Q&A at WGA Theater/ video posted on The Inside Pitch Facebook group

You may not have the benefit of ever going to the University of Iowa to study the films of Jacques Tati like Scott Beck and Bryan Woods did, but through the magic of the Internet you can get a taste of Tati’s work and influence here.

P.S. For a deeper dive, check out The Complete Jacques Tati DVD/Blu-Ray from The Criterion Collection.  

Related posts:

Mr. Silent Movie
Silent Clowns
Harold Loyd vs. Buster Keaton
Writing ‘The Artist’ (Part 1)
The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of The Florida Project
Show Don’t Tell
Show Don’t Tell (part 2) with a Charlie Chaplin example

Scott W. Smith

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A Quiet Place hit $150 million at the worldwide box office over the weekend. Not bad for a movie that just cost $17 million to produce and has only been in theaters 10 days. You may be surprised to learn that it started as an idea that could be made on a micro-budget.

We started thinking what can we write that could be made. Again, this was almost ten years ago—it’s been a long journey.  But we started pivoting our point of view to what films that could be producible? 

Kind of a lesson we learned growing up in Iowa, we would write things for resources that we had in front of us. Something that could be produced, could be made, and hopefully be an interesting story, too. That’s a long way of saying that’s somewhat the genesis of A Quiet Place. It’s like A Quiet Place was written for us to shoot back in Iowa for $50,000 if everyone passed on it. It would have been a very, very different version without Emily Blunt and John Kraninski. But it was something we just had a passion for, and we knew worst case scenario that could be plan B.
Scott Beck on writing the original script for A Quiet Place with Bryan Woods
H/T Christopher Lockhart via a Q&A video at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills

I saw the film over the weekend and could see the DNA of their Iowa roots in the movie (even though the film was shot in rural New York):

Silo full of corn
Old truck
Pitchfork and hatchet
Small town Main Street.

And I also saw the DNA of some popular movies scattered throughout A Quiet Place:

Them! (1954)

P.S. Scott Beck and Bryan Woods are originally from Bettendorf, Iowa and graduated from the University of Iowa in 2007, both less than 2 hours from where I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa when I started this blog. (Our only connection that I know of is we both used Iowa-based gaffer/jib-operator Jon Van Allen on our films and other productions.)  I don’t know if Beck or Woods ever read a single post of Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places—but they’re example A of what’s possible if you have a movie idea and live in an unlikely place.

Related post:
The Best Film School

Scott W. Smith


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(A Quiet Place) was an idea that we came up with while we were students at Iowa. It was like 10 or 11 years ago that Bryan and I were sitting outside of our apartment on South Johnson Street talking about this idea. We kind of put it in a drawer and didn’t really crack it back open until a year and a half ago.

We’ve been working on a film career for almost 20 years—since we were kids—but you hit a point sometimes where it just feels like critical mass. We are very grateful to have so many things hit at once.
Filmmaker Scott Beck 
Alumni filmmakers Scott Beck, Bryan Woods strike deal with Paramount Pictures



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“The key advice I’d give [any filmmaker] is when you’re starting out make things as cheaply as possible. There is a path for making things so cheaply that the minimal value that most independent films get can still help you to recoup your budget. And that’s a path that the Duplass brothers took really well, and I think it will always be a path. There’s always going to be an appetite for movies of a certain sort and if you can achieve quality with a very low budget you can find a path with an independent film.”
Indie film producer Keith Calder 
Interview with John August on Scriptnotes, Episode #342

Note: The keyword in the title of today’s post is “a.” This is a path, not the only path. But, as I mentioned yesterday, before Scott Beck and Bryan Woods had their names attached to the current #1 box office Hollywood hit (The Quiet Place), they made a bunch of low-budget films in Iowa.

“Throughout high school and our college years we just keep making movies and feature films for practically no budget.”
Writer/director Scott Beck
#AlwaysAHawkeye video 

Related posts:

How to Shoot a Film in Ten Days
The Ten Film Commandments of Edward Burns
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood

P.S. Yesterday I went to see the documentary film Long Time Coming at the Florida Film Festival. It’s the debut feature film of Orlando-based filmmaker Jon Strong. It was the second showing of the festival because the first one sold out hours after tickets went on sale.

I don’t know the budget of the film and Strong did say during the Q&A that the film was in the works for two years. But my guess is it’s an example of a film that was made without a large budget and one that will find a distribution path at ESPN or Netflix. Production-wise Long Time Coming reminded me of another baseball-centered film No, No: A Dockumentary (on picture Dock Ellis) which I saw at the Florida Film Festival a few years ago.

No, No was also very heavy on interviews of past players. And if my memory is correct,  the director said the bulk of the interviews with former Pittsburgh Pirates players was shot over a reunion weekend. Shaping those interviews into a story, finding archival photos and videos (and securing rights and funding to use them) is what can take months and years.

But No, No is a good example of a film that had a niche audience and found distribution.  It’s not a bad idea to find a film in your genre that you like and find out as much as you can about how it got funded and found distribution.


Scott W. Smith

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“Growing up in Ohio was just planning to get out.”
Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch (who grew up in Akron)

At the end of Ted Hope’s book Hope  for Film he has an appendix that lists 141 Problems and Opportunities for the Independent World. The list flowed from a blog post he wrote back in 2010.  You can find the entire list here, but I’m just going to highlight one problem today.

124. Artists cannot afford to live in our cultural centers. It’s a real Catch-22. Artists make cultural centers, but these places become too pricey for their creators to live in. If you are in the middle class, you can only afford 14 percent of the currently available homes in San Francisco. The number drops to only 2.5 percent in New York City. I love both cities, but can’t see my future in either of them as a result. And I don’t really want to move to Akron, Ohio, either (no offense intended, Akron!).
Ted Hope
Hope for Film: From the Frontline of the Independent Cinema Revolutions (p. 285)

If you don’t have wealthy parents or a trust fund to support you for a few years until you get some traction in New York or L.A. what is one to do? Many articles over the years have talked about the struggle of creative people trying to pay their bills in the big cities. And if you tack on a large film school debt, forgetaboutit.

It makes me wonder where people like Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise) would go today if they were starting out in 2018 instead of the 1970s.

I started writing this blog in 2008 after seeing Diablo Cody’s Juno and learning that she went to school in Iowa City and wrote the Juno screenplay in the suburbs of Minneapolis. She went on to move to L.A. and win an Oscar for that script. A Midwest success story.

As of this weekend, we have another Midwest success story. And, yes, one also with Iowa roots.

‘A Quiet Place’ Delivers a Not So Quiet $50 Million Opening
Box Office Mojo headline
April 8, 2018

The original screenplay for The Quiet Place was written by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. After the script sold to Paramount in 2016,  John Kraninski came on board to further develop the script, and direct and star in the finished version that this past weekend finished at top of the box office.

So which “cultural center” did these guys develop their filmmaking chops? I’m glad you asked.

“Scott Beck and Bryan Woods are two screenwriters you may not have heard of yet but surely will very soon. Scott and Bryan first met as sixth-graders in their hometown of Bettendorf, Iowa. After discovering a shared interest in cinema, the duo began making stop-motion movies together with their Star Wars action figures. This collaboration continued into high school, where they directed numerous shorts and their first feature films.”
Mike Sargent
Script mag

Like Diablo Cody they also attended the University of Iowa, which is where they first came up with the idea for The Quiet Place. Just this morning both Woods and Beck were back in Iowa City giving a talk on “Exploring Careers in Cinema.” 

They’re based in L.A. now but made their first short films and Nightlight (2015) back in Iowa.

Of course, this doesn’t exactly address Ted Hope’s question that I started off this blog addressing. But the drum I’ve been hitting for the past decade is there are filmmakers rising up all over the world finding support and inspiration from their communities.

Scott W. Smith 




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“When you end up creating a show with seven, eight, nine characters—ask yourself, how can you appropriately dramatize that many characters within the framework of an hour television show? And the answer is that you can’t. So you say, O.K., what we have to do is spill over the sides of our form and start telling multi-plot, more serial kinds of stories.”
Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue Emmy-winning creator Steven Bochco
Writing the TV Drama Series: How to Succeed as a Professional Writer in TV
(H/T Vanity Fair article)

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