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Archive for September, 2018

Smallfoot satisfyingly operates on multiple levels and is much deeper than it appears to be.”
Adam Graham, The Detroit News 

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Smallfoot opens in theater today and so today as well I’m going to start Part 1 of an interview I did with Clare Sera who wrote the screenplay along with the movies’ co-director Karey Kirkpatrick. Of the course of this interview (which will be 3 or 4 parts), you’ll see the unlikely journey of Clare took on her way to writing a movie that has an eclectic mix of talent including Channing Tatum, James Corden, Zendaya, Common, Lebron James, and Danny DeVito.

I met Clare back in the ’90s shortly before she moved to LA. If the movie she worked on does beat Night School in the box office this weekend it will be her first view from the top of the mountain. Just keep in mind, she arrived in LA 20 years ago. While everyone loves a good Diablo Cody story—FIRST TIME SCREENWRITER WINS OSCAR!—Clare’s story is much more typical of working screenwriters in Hollywood.

Scott: So the title of this blog is Screenwriting from Iowa . . . and Other Unlikely Places and I think Scotland qualifies as an unlikely place for a Hollywood screenwriter to be from. Where were you born?

Clare: I was born in Glasgow but my parents immigrated to British Columbia—to Canada–when I was 4. My mom was pretty homesick so we would go back there at least every other summer which was great. So I did know my cousins growing up.

Scott: When did you first get involved in acting and writing?

Clare: Well definitely from childhood that was absolutely my thing. All the school plays and everything like that. After high school I went off to Europe backpacking — I didn’t go to college right away. But when I got back I just ended up doing odd jobs, but doing theater all the time, so I finally sucked it up and said I want to do theater. So I went to college in Vancouver for theater and actually the same year that I finally made that decision SAK Theatre came to my town which is Vancouver B.C. SAK Theatre came there to perform for the summer and I got hired to be one of the performers and then I ended up meeting Will [Sera] and getting married and moving to Orlando and staying with Will and SAK Theatre as a performer and then started writing plays for SAK. And when we moved out to Los Angeles my friend who had been at SAK Theatre was now in Los Angeles—Karey Kirkpatrick— and working full time as a screenwriter. He had just finished Chicken Run and he was like, “Oh, you know you’re a good writer you should you should try screenwriting.” He just made it look so easy, ’cause he’d done James and the Giant Peach and Chicken Run and he was getting ready to do his next whatever it was, and I was like, “Oh wow, screenwriting, that seems cool. If Karey can do it…”[laughs] so I started. I’ve still never caught up to him. But he really mentored me, and I took the Act One writing program at the same time, which was at that time it was like a month-long intensive, to kind of learn the basics of the craft and Karey took me under his wing and got me my start really.

Scott: Our paths crossed in your SAK Theatre era back in the mid-’90s. It’s interesting because Scotland has the huge fringe festival now but you weren’t a part of that. And Vancouver, British Columbia is now popular for movies and TV but that probably wasn’t happening when you were out there. Then you were in Orlando in the ‘90s when it had a minor Hollywood East film movement and you missed that, too. But you were in Orlando as Wayne Brady as he was coming up as a teenager. Did you mentor him?

Clare: He very sweetly gave Will and I props for his improv career. But I met Wayne actually doing an industrial in Orlando and we just hit it off immediately. He was maybe 17 at the time. And I said you have to come to SAK and do improv. And he didn’t know improv. So I guess I did introduce him to it. I mean I think he probably did three workshops and I said come play. His talent was all there but yes, SAK was the first place that he that he first improvised.

Scott: So that’s so that’s kind of like the movie Don’t Think Twice where you have this tight group of performers that are all struggling and trying to make it and somebody breaks out. Was Wayne that guy?

Clare: It was exactly that story, because we all we knew each other in Orlando and then we all moved out to L.A. at the same time to improvise together. The main group that was at SAK which was Joel McCrary, Danno Sullivan, Dave Russell and Matt Young. And Wayne was here and so Wayne hooked up with us again. So we started improvising out here in Los Angeles. We called ourselves Houseful of Honkeys. And it was exactly like Don’t Think Twice out of our whole group the producers from Whose Line Is It Anyway? came to see a show and then Wayne and I were invited to come and do Whose Line? And I mean it’s so— except that Wayne and I were not together romantically— like Don’t Think Twice. But it was it was the black guy and the girl that both got invited to Whose Line? And then after the rehearsal process which is kind of bad process, and I did not do well in that atmosphere. And Wayne actually didn’t do great. Actually, nobody did, but he’s such a killer song improviser they decided to take a chance on him with one taping and, of course, once he was in front of an audience he was just fantastic. And that was the at the end of Wayne being able to be a part of our company and it was tense. It was just like in Don’t Think Twice. [Where the core group breaks up.] I mean it’s hard.

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A 1999 LA Times article on Houseful of Honkeys

Scott: Was there the discussion where people in the group were like “Why did he get chosen? He’s the new guy?” Was there any of that talk?

Clare: No, there was never that because Wayne’s talent is amazing. So there was never like I don’t know why they picked Wayne. It’s quite obvious why they picked Wayne.

Scott: At the same time there’s a line in  “Don’t Think Twice” where they kind of say you can’t do improv forever and they kind of realize that. Did you have that moment where you realized you needed to maybe go in a different direction creatively?

Clare:  Yeah I did. Definitely. I mean it’s not true you can’t do improv forever because all the Whose Line? guys— that’s what they do. But I had actually felt that before we had the full kind of breakup of our group, because I realized that I didn’t really want to pursue an acting career. I loved improvising with those guys but I wasn’t interested in pursuing acting. But I really loved writing at SAK, so [screenwriting] seemed like the next obvious step for me.

Scott:  So then you had your Wayne Brady breakout moment where you got writing assignments to work on Curious George and Blended. Can you summarize the baby steps you took in your writing career?

Clare: Yeah, I basically became Karey’s writing assistant for a couple of years, which was really wonderful because I got to go to studio meetings with him and I got introduced to the world. I watched him get notes and saw kind of how brutal [the business could be]. So it made it much easier for me to transition into it. And from that I became a writing partner with him for a while, and then he got me the interview for Curious George, but we came in separately as writers and then he left the project quite early to go and do something else and I stayed on Curious George and that was the start sort of my career separate from Karey. I met on that project another fellow named Ivan [Menchell] that I ended up writing Blended with. [That film starred Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore.] But I kind of continued to do both writing solo projects and writing with Ivan and now I feel like I’ve been writing more again on my own. And it is a bit of a tough time. Mike [Birbiglia] was talking about this on [the podcast] Scriptnotes, All of my work has been for studios which has been amazing. I have ended up writing either myself or with Iven features for every studio in town. I think I’ve written a script for every studio in Hollywood which has been a wonderful experience and pays well but they don’t always make them. They want to make family films, but when it comes time to pull the trigger they choose their project that’s got a bigger IP. It’s got a bestselling book attachment. Or it’s got a superhero.

Note: This interview was done before Clare got the writing assignment on Smallfoot.  And every once in a while a family film gets made. Go see Smallfoot this weekend  (and when it opens in Scotland) and help Clare have one of those rare feats for any screenwriter of having a movie be both well received by critics (65/72/92% on Rotten Tomatoes) and at the top of the box office.

In Parts 2 and 3 of this interview, we’ll learn what Clare discovered working with legendary director Garry Marshall, and her words of encouragement to up and coming writers and filmmakers.

Related Post:
‘Smallfoot’ and the Legend of Screenwriter Clare Sera and Her Unlikely Journey from Scotland to Hollywood (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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“Trint is the best all-around automatic transcription tool for journalists.”
Ren Laforme, Poynter Institute

Tomorrow I’ll start a run of posts based on an interview I did with screenwriter Clare Sera—one of the credited writers on Smallfoot, which opens in theaters tomorrow.  But today I’m going to share with you a new piece of AI software that helped me pull off editing that interview.

Transcribing an interview has traditionally involved either a lot of time typing it out sentence by sentence or has taken a fair amount of money. But in reading the article The best automatic transcription tools for journalists by Ren Laforme, I decided to try cloud-based Trint for this interview.

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I signed up Monday for Trint and uploaded a 40-minute .wav file and I was soon editing the interview. The translation was not 100%, but it was pretty solid and gave me a track to run on. It even tried to break up who was talking. Again, not perfect— but it all seemed magical to me since I’d done it old school before. (That’s where you play a tape at a sentence or two at a time. Very laborious.)

A super feature on Trint is the audio somehow tracks where you are on the transcription. So you hit play on the audio and allows you to type in changes on the fly.

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Then when you’re done you have a variety of ways to export the content. I used Microsoft Word, but I can see editing it for “Project” would allow you to drop it into your Adobe Premiere or Apple Final Cut Pro 7 project for purposes of adding closed caption to videos.

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I’m sure it does other stuff, but I’ve only been using this software for a few days. I still remember clearly 15 years ago when I was producing a broadcast Tv program and we’d shoot some interviews in Nashville, and the cameraman would take the DigiBeta tapes back to the office in Chicago and someone would send them off to have VHS window dubs made, then they’d have those tapes transcribed by hand, and about two weeks later they’d arrive to be to begin a paper edit.

I imagine that process is still being done somewhere in the world, but it seems primitive by today’s standards. The cost of Trint on the pay as you go basis is $15 an hour. Well worth it for me. I have shied away of doing interviews because they are so labor intensive. In fact, I have a few that I’ve never gotten around to transcribing including one with screenwriter Dale Launer (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).

Hopefully, Trint will help me get caught up this year on shelved interviews, and better position me to do more interviews in the future.

This must be the week for learning new tools, because I also started a short animation project using Vyond.  Keep in mind that I’ve never done an animation project, and only have a working knowledge of After Effects.

For those of you who’ve never wrapped your head around the complexity of any animation software, Vyond is something you can be up and using in the first hour. Granted it’s not Pixar-animation, but super for communicating many concepts and ideas (especially for producing promos and micro learning videos).

More in line with the animatics that advertising agencies (or even Pixar) use to test a concept. I can’t imagine how good animation is going to look—and be easy to use—in five years. I can see screenwriters using Vyond to develop their stories today. Here’s what Pixar’s development looked like 12 years ago.

And lastly, just a few days ago Kodak announced it was bringing back Ektachrome film. As someone who made their film on Kodak 8mm film, I find this pretty exciting.

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Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

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“If you’re gonna throw your life away, he’d better have a motorcycle.”
The concerned mother (Lauren Graham) to her teenage daughter (Alexis Bledel) in the pilot for Gilmore Girls

One of the fringe benefits to the success of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel winning seven Emmy Awards is its given new recognition to the Gilmore GirlsAmy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of both shows said that when Gilmore Girls first aired in 2000 it was up against two of the biggest shows at the time (Survivor, Friends) and she didn’t know if her show would find an audience. The WB moved it to another day where it went up against another popular show, American Idol. 

But they did find an audience and ran for seven seasons. And it continues to find an audience. Part of its evergreen content is there are always going to be a new crop of teenage and early 20-something girls and their mothers trying to help them navigate through life.

Google “best mother-daughter relationships on TV” and the Gilmore Girls is sure at or near the top of the list. The relationships, the struggles, and the banter and humor all resonate with a core audience. In an interview with Danielle Nussbaum, Sherman-Palladino said that DVDs brought the Gilmore Girls a new audience, and Netflix has brought the show a new binge-friendly audience—many who were under 10 years old when the show originally went off the air in 2007.

Sherman-Palladino is now fresh off her two Emmy wins for both writing and directing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and pleased Gilmore Girls is getting more exposure to her show that was once described as “where the banter is fast, but the journey is slow.”  Here’s how she explained the origins of the Gilmore Girls and the world she created in fictitious Stars Hollow, CT:

“The idea actually came from me just walking into the WB. I really wanted to work with Susanne Daniels, who was head of the WB at the time. I pitched her a bunch of ideas, quite a few that were actually a lot more worked-out than this one. I had been there about 45 minutes, and eyes were glazing over. Everybody was thinking about their lunch, and whether they had calls to return. At the very end, I threw in this one idea about a mother and daughter who are more like friends than mother and daughter, and they’re like, “That’s what we want!” [Laughs.] I didn’t have a show, mind. I had a relationship. I left, and once I verified that they were actually going to pay me to write something, then I had to come up with something.

“Okay, it’s a mother and daughter, and they’re best friends. I was going to put them in a city area, but then I went on vacation to Connecticut, because I wanted to see Mark Twain’s house. I stayed at an inn, and it was very charming, in a tiny town, and everybody seemed to know each other, and there was a pumpkin patch across the street. I went to a diner, and people kept getting up to get their own coffee. No one was there to be waited on. It seemed like a fun environment to put [the characters] in. It happened over a two-day period, as far as place and where they would live. If they were going to live in a small town in Connecticut, the parents needed to be big-city, which–in Connecticut, Hartford is about as big as you’re going to get. Hartford is the insurance capital of the world, so insurance… It all sort of fell into place over that two-day period.”
Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino
2005 A/V Club  interview with Scott Tobias

Related post:
Where Did the Idea for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Come From?

 

Scott W. Smith

 

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”We wanted this journey, even though it was 1958, to feel energized and vibrant and for an 18-year-old to look at it and go, ‘I get that. And that is my story, too.’”
Amy Sherman-Palladino on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Variety 

After The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won seven Emmy Awards on Sunday on Sunday (including Outstanding Comedy Series) I decided to check it out. I carved out time at 5:30 Wednesday morning and watched the pilot (which the show’s’ creator—Amy Sherman-Palladino— won two Emmys for writing and directing).

The rapid banter between actors and 1950s world the production team created somehow has a retro-contemporary feel. Sort of like Joan Rivers meets Mad Men meets Amy Schumer. I wondered what the origins were for the show and found this excerpt:

‘My dad was a stand-up comic. So I grew up with a bunch of Jews sitting around trying to make each other laugh. And I knew Lenny Bruce’s mother when I was a kid, because she was sort of the godmother to all the comics. And I worked at the Comedy Store. So the show was not so much a conscious homage to any particular comic as it was something that was in my zeitgeist. I was having a meeting with the guys over at Amazon, and we were just kind of shooting the shit, and [The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel] was a little idea I had standing in the back of my head. They’re like, ‘Great. Go do that and bring it back.’”
Writer Amy Sherman-Palladino
Vanity Fair interview with Hillary Busis

P.S. This morning I got up early again and watched the pilot of Gilmore Girls that Amy Sherman-Palladino also created. That series ran from 2000-2007 and was full of snappy dialogue and some of it by actress Alexis Bledel who played a sassy high school student when the series began. I have to think that when screenwriter Diablo Cody was somewhere between being a student at the University of Iowa and writing Juno (2007) that she probably watched an episode or two of Gilmore Girls.

Related post:
Where Do Ideas Come From? 

Scott W. Smith

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“You can’t write code. You’re not an engineer. You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail. I built the circuit board! The graphical interface was stolen! … So how come ten times in a day I read Steve Jobs is a genius? What do you do?”
Steve Wozniak confronting Steve Jobs in a scene written by Aaron Sorkin

I thought the most dynamic scene in the movie Steve Jobs (2015) was the confrontation between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak before the launch of the NeXT computer. It’s a confrontation that didn’t literally happen, but one in which Wozniak told Tech Insider that it was the “sentiment” and “feelings”  that others had and that those words “were put into my mouth for the movie.”

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is clear in The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith that the entire film, not just that Wozniak scene, is a restructuring for dramatic purposes. That while the conversations weren’t real, the contents of those confrontations were real.

“I got a sense from all the time I spent with Woz that . . . for the first 10 or 15 minutes that I was with him—he is a man who doesn’t like saying a bad word about anyone, that he’s a man without ego, that he does not have the kind of ambition that Steve Jobs does, that he likes building, that he likes tinkering, and that the things that were important to Steve weren’t important to him. He doesn’t care who gets credit. That’s the first 15 minutes. In minute 16, it starts to become very clear that he cannot understand why in the world he’s Garfunkel. That he really believes Steve has gotten credit for things for which he did not deserve credit. That he really thinks Steve is a person whose integrity can’t be trusted. All this stuff starts coming out. So how do you dramatize that? You can do it one of two ways; you can have a scene that did happen which is between Woz and a screenwriter named Aaron Sorkin, or you can be a dramatist and write a movie, and not a journalist.  And they both have their places. I knew what I didn’t want to do. What I didn’t want to do was dramatize a Wikipedia page.”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

It’s called dramatic writing for a reason.

BTW— That Q&A that Goldsmith did with Sorkin back in 2015 is easily one of my top ten interviews of all-time in regard to the screenwriting process.

P.S. The group Simon & Garfunkel created beautiful hit music together, but Paul Simon is the one who had a long and successful solo career. Though the began singing together when they were 11, as of 2016 (and now into their 70s), Paul Simon and Art Garfunkle were not on speaking terms. Their hit Bridge Over Troubled Water sums up many dynamic relationships over history “when times get rough, and friends just can’t be found.” (That album sold 25 million copies. The single Bridge Over Troubled Water was released in January 1970. The duo act broke up later that year.)

Related posts:
Blending Truth, Spectacle & Serving the Story
Emotional Climaxes
Dialogue as Music (Aaron Sorkin)
The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of ‘The Florida Project’

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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“You had me at hello.“
Dorothy Boyd (Rene Zellweger) in Jerry Maguire

Most of the time, me writing looks—to the untrained eye—like someone watching ESPN. The truth is if you did a pie chart of the writing process, most of the time is spent thinking. When you’re loaded up and ready to go—when you’ve got that intention and obstacle for the first scene that’s all you need.  For me at least, getting started is 90% of the battle. The difference between page zero and page two is all the difference in the world. So once I had the technical jargon to write [the ‘Hello’ scene in the movie Steve Jobs] and I also knew that scene would take us into a dressing room of some kind. . . . In the dressing room I knew they were going to talk about the overinflated projections and managing expectations, and that was going to get us into Time magazine, which was going to get us into paternity. I was able to see that far ahead. So once I knew everything about what I was doing—once I start typing it’s not going to be finger-painting, I’m not just going to be feeling my way in the dark and ‘let’s see where these characters take me.’ . . . Once you do know what you’re doing—for me, it’s intention and obstacle, for you it could be something else. You do understand there isn’t one way of doing this, right? Whatever way works for you is the right way, for me it’s intention and obstacle. Once you have that, there does come a time when you actually now are ready for your talent to take over. Start writing. Do your thing.”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men)
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

Related post:
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention, and Obstacles

Scott W. Smith

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When comedian, actor, and game show host Drew Carey was starting out he tried doing standup “as a goof” while in college and it didn’t go well. After a few failed attempts, he was glad he gave it a shot and get it out of his system.

After he dropped out of college, he joined the U.S. Marines.  Carey served in the military for six years and was waiting tables in his hometown of Cleveland when a radio host he knew said he’d pay him $20 a joke. He was hoping to pick up an extra $100 a week and ended up building over his career (so far) an estimated net worth of over $100 million.

This is how Carey told Terry Gross on Fresh Air how he learned to write jokes.

Drew Carey: I went to the library and I finally got a book on how to write jokes. And from reading that book, that’s what really started me. I thought, oh wow, there’s a formula to this. I can write jokes.

Terry Gross: How did the book help you to write jokes?

Carey: There’s formulas for every kind of joke writing. There really is. The example they used in the book is you take driving and write it at the top of the page. It’s all about list-making. Then you write down everything that relates to driving: angry drivers, slow drivers, fast drivers, new cars, old cars, junk cars, car washes, red lights. You write all this stuff down and then you try to exaggerate something to make it bigger than it is. Then there’s words that sound like other words and you try to make puns up that way, and use all these different techniques to take all this little lists you’ve made—angry women drivers, angry men drivers—when you detail it down you try to exaggerate it, or minimalize it, or twist it around. And then you try to make 20 jokes and try to get one good joke out of that, and that’s how you come up with one good joke. If you’re starting out, it takes you like three hours.

P.S. He didn’t say in that interview what that book he read, but if you’ve seen it in others interviews let me know and I’ll put a link to it here. In the meantime check out Comedy Writing SecretsThe Hidden Tools of Comedy, The New Comedy Writing Step by Step, and Jerry Seinfeld’s doc Comedian.

Scott W. Smith

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