Archive for January, 2019

“I try to make my screenplays as readable an experience as I can.”
William Goldman

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid screenplay by William Goldman

Both Aaron Sorkin and Tony Gilroy talk about one of the important things they learned personally from William Goldman was trying to give the reader of their scripts the same experience emotionally as they would get from watching the movie.

To do this sometimes you have to cheat on the page. To at times tell the reader what is going on in a character’s mind. (Common in novels, but often looked down on in screenwriting because it’s not something you can shoot.) Or write things that aren’t filmable. Or writing something that is a wink to the reader could be seen as a cheat.


Screenwriter Scott Frank, who was also mentored by William Goldman, said he read the ButchCassidy screenplay as an 11-year-old that last line from the fight scene made him want to be a screenwriter. When Goldman begin the scene which is going to introduce the superposse one of his lines is (in all caps): THE LONGEST TRAVELING SHOT IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD.

I imagine if that line was written today in a student screenplay that more than one college professor would give a note that read, “Save us the ALL CAPS and the hyperbole–it’s the sign of an amateur. And don’t try to tell the director and the director of photography how to do their job.”

But Goldman came to screenwriting as a novelist and decided he didn’t want to follow traditional screenwriting. He wanted to have fun on the page. And make it for the reader. But he also wanted to draw attention to important scenes like the jump off the cliff, the fight scene, and the superposse showing up.

Mission accomplished. But Goldman wrote Butch Cassidy in the 1960s, and it’s fair to ask if that style is done today.

Gilroy (The Bourne Supremacy) says that he’s desperate to not lose the reader’s attention. And because of that, he’s willing to reach into the whole bag of tricks to convey his intentions.

Look, as we well know, there’s so many things that work better on the page than they do on the screen, and there’s so many things—so many more things—that work better on the screen than they do on the page. And a tiny little slug in a script of a moment—of a camera moment— that can be so critically important to a film that just disappears on the page. If you know when you’re writing it it’s important you have to lean into it. You have to let the reader, you have to let the actor, you have to let the director, you have to let the cameraman, you have to let everyone know this really means something here. I’m going to reward this here with a disproportionate amount of real estate in my script so that you understand that this is really important.”
Writer/director Tony Gilroy
The Moment with Brian Koppelman (11/27/18)

This is what “the three horses scene” looks like on pages 15-16 of the screenplay of Michael Clayton. 

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Gilroy wrote, “And later on we’ll understand all the forces rolling inside him, but for the moment, the simplest thing to say is that is a man who needs more than anything to see one pure, natural thing, and by some miracle has found his way to this place.” That would qualify as a cheat. Screenwriting professors are getting out their red markers—or digital equivalent— for that sentence. But that line is there to shine a spotlight on the importance of that moment.

Gilroy doesn’t want that moment to be lost as the reader, the actor, the director, or the DP to miss it. Tony Gilroy passed on what he learned from Goldman to his brother Dan Gilroy who wrote Nightcrawlers. You can see the unconventionality if Dan’s script in the first line where is forgoes writing “EXT.  LOS ANGELES  – NIGHT” and just jumps right into scene description. Later he tosses in a logo of a video company.

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The first lines of the Nightcrawler script



Playing with fonts and font sizes in Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler is one of the screenplays that inspired screenwriters Byran Woods and Scott Beck as they were writing the original version of A Quiet Place script.

“We were looking at the Walter Hill and David Giler draft of Alien, and Dan Gilroy’s draft of Nightcrawler, and were just really in awe of how they were able to use words and spaces on the page to really just convey a mood, a tone, and a pace as well. That was always super important for us to crib from them.”
Scott Beck
Go Into the Story interview with Scott Myers 

As I wrote last year in the post Writing an Unorthodox Script (‘A Quiet Place’)

Beck and Woods used a whole range of cheats that many would call gimmicky. They also played with font sizes, added graphics, and included hand-scrawled words.



At though there is almost a 50-year gap between the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and A Quiet Place (2018) both screenplays share a common bond in being fun reads. The only thing that I would add is that make sure when you cheat that you do so with a spirit of intentionality. Do so because you want the reader of your screenplay to experience the movie by just reading your words.

Scott W. Smith

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“I was so programmed to fail. I had shown no signs of talent as a young man. I was an editor at the school literary magazine at Oberlin College, and I would anonymously submit my short stories. When the other editors – two brilliant girls – would read them, they would say, ‘We can’t possibly publish this shit.’ And I would agree. After that I took a creative-writing course, where I got horrible grades. Do you know what it’s like to want to be a writer and get the worst grades in the class? It’s terrible.”
Novelist/screenwriter William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Misery) 
The Guardian interview with Joe Queenan
April 24, 2009

Related posts:
The Dean of American Screenwriters William Goldman (1931-2018) 
‘I never saw a screenplay until I was 33-years-old’—William Goldman
The Benefits of Failure (From a Former Struggling Writer Now Worth Over $1 Billion)

Scott W. Smith

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Scott W. Smith


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Is Film School Worth It?

“When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, no, I went to films.”
Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino

Ang Lee and I were in the same class. Also, another person instrumental in my development as a filmmaker was the great cinematographer Ernest Dickerson.” 
Spike Lee on the benefits going to NYU film school with talented classmates
(As a DP, Dickerson not only shot Spike’s student films but Do the Right Thing, She’s Got to Have It, and Mo’ Better Blues for Spike. He then became a director himself.)

NOTE: Like my post How Much Do Screenwriters Make?, I will continue to update this post because it’s a common question.

“Is film school worth it?” is a simple question, but a complicated one to answer. But it’s best to ask another question first. What does the “it” in “Is film school worth it” mean? There are many layers there.

If you got into a top tier film school on a full scholarship, then the “it”could be just four years of your life for an undergraduate degree or 2 to 3 years for a graduate degree. In that scenario, I’d say yes it’s worth it. Ditto that if your parents are paying for school.

But if the “it” means going into going into debt for $330,000 (as I wrote about yesterday) then my answer is no. I’m sure there are exceptions, but why stack the odds against you in a field where the odds are already stacked against you? (Compounded interest can even make your student loan grow despite your making monthly payments.)

For everyone between getting a full scholarship and having $300K+ of student loans my answer is—It depends.

Over the years I’ve noticed that there are four major ways that writers, filmmakers, and content creators at the top of the pyramid got their education.

Top Film Schools: USC (George Lucas), UCLA (Francis Ford Coppola), AFI (Darren Aronofsky), NYU (Spike Lee), Columbia University (Kathryn Bigelow), University of Texas, Austin (Robert Rodriguez), Columbia College—Chicago (Jansuz Kaminski), Florida State University (Barry Jenkins)

Elite Private Schools: Harvard University (Damien Chazelle) , Stanford University (Alexander Payne), Wesleyan University (Lin-Manuel Miranda), Oberlin College (Lena Dunham), Northwestern University (Garry Marshall), Drake University (Jim Uhls), Carnegie Mellon University (Steven Bochco), Dartmouth College (Shonda Rhimes), Emerson College (Norman Lear), Syracuse University (Aaron Sorkin)

Miscellaneous Public Schools: Iowa (Diablo Cody), Michigan (Arthur Miller)

Little or No College/Self-education: Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Gordon Parks, Frank Darabont, Casey Neistat, Tyler Perry (net worth $800 million), Clint Eastwood, Sam Shepard, Steven Soderbergh 

People come from everywhere. But those above schools have a higher headcount in Hollywood than most places. Some of this has to do with established pipelines to the industry. Many Hollywood executives come from Ivy League schools where Harvard and Dartmouth have deep ties in Hollywood making it easier to get introduced to the business.

It’s also true that the educational standards at most of those places are high— matching smart, talented, and driven people with a solid and proven education. But scholarships and grants aside, some of those colleges and universities are $50,000+ a year so it’s obviously not for everyone.

Of course, some people on that list went to film schools back in the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s which was a different era. Back then it wasn’t as common for students coming out of school to have insurmountable student loans as it is today.

“The greatest obstacles to making films was getting access to equipment. And so my generation went to film school.”
Spike Lee on going to film school in the late ’70s & early ’80s.
American Black Film Festival

In the era before digital technology, it was expensive and complicated to get your hands on film equipment. In the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s VCR machines were either non-existent or too expensive for the masses—and there was no internet—so film schools were the best place to get caught up on film history.

The film school question today is a totally different question than it was 20 years ago. The film business is different than it was 20 years ago. I’ve heard it said for all the film school grads to have a job out of school, everyone working in the film industry today would have to quit. I can’t quote the source, but it should cause you to at least pause before you rush into film school.

The average 15-year-old in the United States today has so many resources available—for basically nothing. From blogs, YouTube tutorials, and streaming movies and TV shows to DVD/Blu-Ray discs with director’s commentaries. Toss in an iPhone and iMovie and you’re off to the races.

Let Scott Beck and Bryan Woods be your heroes. They met in middle school in Iowa and had a common love for movies and started creating things. In high school they made features that they showed at local movie theaters for friends and family. They both went to the University of Iowa where they majored in communications.

After graduating in 2007 they kept writing and making low budget films until one of their scripts found its way to producer Michael Bay and last year became the hit film A Quiet Place. Just last night Emily Blunt won the SAG Award for best supporting actress in that movie. Here she is thanking her husband John Krasinski for directing the film.

Now Beck and Woods are working on a script from a Stephen King book. Not everyone gets a Hollywood ending like that. In fact, most don’t. (One top film school professor reportedly said, “I prepare students for unemployment.”)  That’s why I don’t think you go $300K in debt for film school. To paraphrase financial radio host Dave Ramsey—if you have $300K in student loans you better be able to operate on people. (You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to be a filmmaker, but you may need to be a brain surgeon to pay off a $300K loan.  An indie filmmaker might not do that in his or her lifetime.)

I won’t give you a cut-off dollar wise but anything over $25,000 for film school should give you pause to ask—is there a better way of doing this? Be creative looking for alternative ways to pay for school without having a large debt. Look into scholarships, grants, and diversity programs.

The main pluses for going to film school is you can compress your learning curve by benefiting from knowledgable professors who inspire you. Sometimes the right professor can pass on your work to the right person in the industry. You’ll work alongside talented and passionate classmates. They will push you to be better. (Both Ryan Coogler and Barry Jenkins built their core teams at USC and FSU.) You may have alumni connections through your school that open doors for you years down the road.

And a college degree (in anything) comes in handy outside of Hollywood. It’s kind of the threshold that human resources use at companies to sort out people looking for jobs. It shows that you’re well rounded and have studied a variety of disciplines. One of my professors told me when I was questioning my education, “You don’t go to college to learn how to make films, you go to learn what to make films about.”

That answer by Professor George Capewell is even a better answer today than it was when it was given to me back in the 1980s. College is a great place to do a deep dive into humanities, history, literature, business, psychology, sociology, biology, religion, etc. Black Panther writer/director Ryan Coogler’s undergraduate degree is in finance.  (I’m sure that helps him count all that money he’s making.) But it was a creative writing teacher in college that changed his life.

“She said, you should consider being a writer. . . .  You should maybe even consider going to Hollywood and writing screenplays. I thought she was crazy.  I didn’t even know what a screenplay was.”

Ryan Coogler on novelist Rosemary Graham who teaches at St. Mary’s College
2017 interview 

Let me default back to Beck and Woods who in an interview talked about getting the roots of the idea for A Quiet Place while students at the University of Iowa.

Beck: As a filmmaker—as important as it is to study film—it is also important to get enough life experiences. For instance, we took this nonverbal communication course. So much of [A Quiet Place] is about the nonverbal or what’s being said behind the dialogue. That was a really interesting study into human nature and applying that to writing and directing. There were a lot of foreign cinema classes that we took that exposed us to different cinema experiences around the world. Those exposed us to new forms of storytelling.

Woods: We always felt it would be advantageous for us to get a well-rounded education. It never felt like we were making movies outside of class. It was all one thing. Class was informing us as people—how you are as people impacts how you are as writers.

So while I am anti-$300K debt, I am pro-college. Even pro-film school . . . if the conditions are right.

But . . .

You’ll find established filmmaker after established filmmaker—from Spike Lee to Sean Baker— today just encouraging you to make films with whatever digital camera you can find. Even if that’s with the phone in your pocket. No film school needed. Just talent, guts, drive—and an incredible work ethic. But don’t just take my word for it . . .

P.S. I did my undergraduate work in Cinema and have a graduate degree in Digital Journalism. It didn’t make me the next Steven Speilberg—though I do have a signed certificate from him for my work on the Shoah Project—but working in production in one form or other has paid my bills for over 30 years. It’s been a good ride.

This is a great time to be a content creator. Colleges all over the country are offering degrees in film, digital production, multimedia journalism, electronic arts, and the like.  And those grads are working on corporate productions,  in broadcast and cable TV, in education, with internet companies, and their own start-up production companies. But most of them are not pulling in salaries that could make a dent on $300K.

As I think back over the people that I’ve personally worked with in production over my career and I’d estimate that 85% of them do have college degrees—and studied film or television. So I imagine they’d all say it was worth it. But I don’t think any of them have student loans over $40,000. But not everyone is built for college and if you look at the above list of people who have little or no college you’ll find some incredibly accomplished people.

Related articles to check out:

“$182,000 in Student Debt for a Film Major?!”/Money

Credit Risk: Student Debt’s Impact on Post-University Film Careers”/ Filmmaker mag

“My Film School Degree Ruined My Life”

Is it worth it to go to USC Film School for $200K?

“10 Reasons to Not Go To Film School”/No Film School

“Despite Expense, Film School Remains the Best Option for Cineastes”/Variety

Scott W. Smith









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“I graduated [from film school in] 2016 with $330,000 worth of debt and I’m on the road to paying it back.”
Writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men)
WTF with Marc Maron podcast 
December 31, 2018

I’ve never heard of a $330,000 student loan for film school, so I’m just going to let this one sentence be the post for today and comment on it tomorrow. But the least I can do is put on the trailer for Green’s 2018 movie Monsters and Men.

Scott W. Smith




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“If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song—one song that people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know how you felt about your time here on Earth. One song that would sum you up. You tellin’ me that’s the song you’d sing?”
Sam Phillips to Johnny Cash in Walk the Line
(Screenplay by James Mangold & Gil Dennis)

Here’s a snapshot of encouragement about working in indie films today from filmmaker Sean Baker from his Q&A at Rollins College this week:

—It’s a hustle.

—It’s a balance of art and commerce.

—Do not wait. All the tools are there for you. You can pull out a phone from your pocket and shoot a movie, edit it on iMovie, and post it online.

—If you fail you will have learned a lot.

—You can make a bad film and bury it.

“Put your heart into it.” 

That’s a pretty good short list. I don’t recall Baker saying anything about having to go to film school. And while he did go to NYU, that was over 20 years ago before you could shoot HD digital footage with relatively inexpensive cameras and edit on a laptop. I just heard a podcast about someone who recently got their MFA from NYU and said he has $330K in student loans. That’s not a typo—$330,000 in student loans. That’s crazy.

One of my favorite posts from last year was this one from Ted Hope:

“If I ran a film school, I would require the students to make a feature film for just a thousand dollars. They’d learn tricks that they could apply for the rest of their lives, no matter how poorly the movie turned out.”
Ted Hope
Hope for Film, page 15

Since Ted Hope is busy with his day job at Amazon Studios, I don’t think he’s running a film school anytime soon. But you can still take his advice and make a $1,000 feature. How? Take Sean Baker’s advice and use your phone.

He shot Tangerine with a 5s with the FilMiC Pro app. It played at Sundance and opened doors for the career he’s now enjoying.

Here are some other past posts from this blog that will help you pull this off.

Coppola & Corman: “Of all films I ever directed, the one that survived the longest as a genuine ‘cult classic’ is the one I did the fastest and the cheapest. It only took two days on a leftover soundstage to shoot the principal photography for The Little Shop of Horrors.”—Roger Corman

The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns:
Find free locations. Pick locations where you can use little or no lights.

How to Shoot a Feature Film in 10 Days

Don’t Wait for Hollywood:“If you have a good idea, try to make it on your own as cheaply as possible… on your phone.” —Producer Jason Blum (Whiplash, Get Out, Paranormal Activity)

Shooting a Feature Film in a Coffin: “Stealing a page from Hitchcock’s playbook, I decided on writing a story that takes place entirely in one small location. In my case, this was inside an old, wooden coffin.”—Chris Sparling on writing Buried

‘Don’t try and compete with Hollywood’: “People ask, ‘What’s the advice you’d give young filmmakers?’ And I always say, ‘Don’t try and compete with Hollywood. Take your lack of resources and make it work for you. Look at ClerksEl MariachiMetropolitan, even McMullenSlackers.”—Edward Burns

The best thing about making a $1,000 feature is you’ll have saved $329,000. You don’t have to be in debt for the rest of your life. Want to learn from Professor Spike Lee without having to go to NYU? Pony up $90 and watch his MasterClass.  

Even Spike Lee says “You do not have to go to film school. I’m going to say it again, you don’t have to go to film school to be a filmmaker”—but you do have to be a student of cinema. Learn your craft and “put your heart into it.”

And if you spend another $90 at MasterClass (no I’m paid to plug MasterClass) you can get the all-access pass and also learn from Martin Scorsese , Ron Howard, Shoda Rhimes, Werner Herzog, David Mamet, Jodie Foster, Ken Burns, Aaron Sorkin and others.

Scott W. Smith

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Filmmakers from 8 to 88

“Location scouting for @thebrooklynnk’s directorial debut. A short called Colours. She writes, stars and directs and oh… she’s 8 years old.”
—Tweet from writer/director Sean Baker regarding Brooklyn Prince’s first film

“Some people glow really early, in their twenties and thirties, then in their fifties they are not doing as much. But I feel that growing up and maturing, constantly maturing—aging is the impolite way of saying it-—I like to think there is an expansion going on philosophically.”
—Clint Eastwood
Devil’s Guide to Hollywood written by Joe Eszterhas

I hope I don’t offend any 7 and under or 89 and over filmmakers with my title, but I had to land somewhere. And 8 to 88 has a nice ring. Plus I could back it up with filmmakers.

When I went to hear filmmaker Sean Baker speak the other night he mentioned that he was executive producing 8-year-old Brooklynn Prince’s first short film Colours. She may not be the youngest to ever make a film—but she may be the youngest to direct with a Panavision camera.

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That news is unusual enough to already get her press coverage in Vanity Fair, W MagazineIndieWire. No word on the storyline, but the budget already looks like it’s more than Sean Baker’s first feature (Take Out) that was made for $3,000.

On the other end of the spectrum is Clint Eastwood who was 88 when he directed The Mule. He didn’t direct his first film (Play Misty for Me) until he was in his 40s, and he was in his 60s when he won his first Oscar for directing (Unforgiven).

One thing that Prince and Eastwood have in common is neither went to film school. In fact, Prince hasn’t even made it to middle school.

Scott W. Smith

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