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Archive for February, 2019

“Poverty was always a living and evil thing to me.”
Moss Hart (on his childhood in the Bronx and Brooklyn)

Before Moss Hart become the wonder boy of Broadway at age 26, before be would buy a farmhouse on 87 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and before he won a Pulitzer Prize in Drama, he was a young man working with the established playwright George S. Kaufman on the play Once in a Lifetime.

This is what he daily routine was like leading up to his Broadway premiere in 1930.

“By the end of the first month of our working together, however, I was in a state of constant weariness. . . . I was suffering from insufficient sleep. Out working hours were from eleven o’clock in the morning until five thirty or six in the eventing, at which time I would eat a walloping dinner and rush off to Newark or Brooklyn for my little-theatre rehearsals, which began at seven thirty and usually continued until midnight and sometimes past. By the time I reached home again, after obligatory socializing with the cast over coffee and cake, was usually three or four in the morning. Since I had to be up shortly after eight o’clock in order to allow enough time for the long subway ride, which would get me to 158 East 63rd Street at five minutes of eleven. . . .I did not dare give up my little-theatre work. Apart from the necessary weekly income that it provided, the basket I carried most of my eggs in was too precariously balanced to shake, even with a Broadway production in the offing. I knew well enough that failure is the norm of the theatre, not success.”
Playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart
Act One, pages 288-289

So Hart’s schedule looked something like this:

8AM—Wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, take the subway to George S. Kaufman’s place
11AM-5:30/6:00—Work on play with Kaufman
6:00-7:30—Grab dinner and travel to Newark or Brooklyn for rehearsals
7:30-Midnight—Play rehearsals (his “day job”)
Midnight-3:00AM—Socializing
Travel home for a few hours of sleep

And keep in mind, that before his play caught the attention of Kaufman that Hart had devoured reading plays at the library, gone to Broadway plays nightly (a perk to being an office boy), and spent six seasons as a social director to several summer camps where among his other duties he directed plays to entertain the guest.

Milton Glaser’s phrase “Art is Work” comes to mind.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“If it is true that no more eager disciple ever sat at the feet of a teacher, it is equally true that no disciple was ever treated with more infinite patience and understanding.”
Moss Hart on his early collaboration with George S. Kaufman

I forget who said “All disappointment comes from unmet expectations”—but that would sum up one unusual less than 48-hour period in the life of Moss Hart when he was on the verge of becoming the well-known playwright Moss Hart.

After six year of writing plays with little success, Hart was in his mid-20s when a play of his was given to the established playwright George S. Kaufman. Moss was excited that Kaufman could be interested in re-working Hart’s play and thought this could be his breakthrough moment.

In today’s terms this would be like a young writer getting a chance to work with Aaron Sorkin. Hart was given Kaufman’s home phone number and encouraged to call him. That phone call resulted in Kaufman hanging up on him.

DOWNBEAT #1

That night Kaufman did read Hart’s script and wanted to meet with Hart the next day at the Music Box Theatre. It turns out that Kaufman did want to work on the play with Hart and a deal was struck on the spot and Hart was even given a $500 advance on royalties. (Keep in mind this was in the 1920s and this was the equivalent to six months pay for Hart.) When Hart went into a sincere (semi-prepared) thank you speech to Kaufman, Kaufman walked out on him. Hart was told that Kaufman had no use for sentimentality.

DOWNBEAT #2

Hart went home that night to tell his family the good news and share his victory with them.

“[M]y family’s reception of the news, when I stood in the doorway and announced in ringing tones that I had sold a play, in no way matched my own triumphant glow. They received the news with an air of amazed disbelief and infuriating calm. Even the [$500] check, which I unfolded carefully and placed in the center of the dining-room table to be admired by them and by myself all over again, was viewed with an irritating detachment and a quiet distrust.

“‘I suppose you know what you’re doing, taking all that money,’ said my mother warily, ‘but I wouldn’t touch it until you’ve worked with Mr. Kaufman for a while—in case he asks you to give it back.’”
Moss Hart

DOWNBEAT #3

The next day Hart went to Kaufman’s home at 158 East 63rd Street and was unimpressed with the modest brownstone.  He was “a little disappointed” in the exterior of a home of the famous playwright. And he was even less impressed when he arrived in the room where Kaufman wrote.

“It was a small, rather dark room, furnished sparsely with a studio couch, a quite ugly typewriter desk and one easy chair. It was hard for me to believe that a stream of brilliant plays had come from this monk-like interior. I am not certain what I expected the atelier of Kaufman and [Marc] Connelly would be like, but it most certainly was the opposite of this.  There was no hint of any kind that this room was in any way connected with the theatre. Not a framed photograph or program hung on the walls, and except for an excellent etching of Mark Twain, it might have been, I thought regretfully, the bedroom and workroom of a certified public accountant. My initial disappointment was to deepen into an active loathing of that room. . . .”
Moss Hart

The play they were working on together was Once in a Lifetime that would go on to become a hit on Broadway. But long before that, this is how Kaufman began their collaboration on day one:

“The trouble begins in the third scene of the first act. It’s messy and unclear and goes off in the wrong direction. Suppose we start with that.”

DOWNBEAT #4

Hart did not take Kaufman’s direct analysis well.

“I nodded, trying to look agreeable and knowing at the same time; but this like my disappointment with the workshop of the master, was my second blow of the morning.”
Moss Hart

These days every time an artist sneezes it’s called a master class. Every Q&A is a master class. But the truth is many of these master classes are just successful people giving interesting anecdotes on their careers. “Master class” has just become additional marketing buzz words. But what Hart got from Kaufman was even more than a master class—it was the opportunity to work side by side with a master surgeon of the theatre.

RISING CRESCENDO

“If it is possible for a book of this sort to have a hero, then that hero is George S. Kaufman. In the months that followed that first day’s work, however, my waking nightmare was of a glittering steel pencil suspended over my head that sometimes turned into a scalpel, or a baleful stare over the rims of a huge pair of disembodied tortoise-shell glasses. I do not think it far-fetched to say that such success as I have had in the theatre is due in large part to George Kaufman. I cannot pretend that I was without talent, but such gifts as I possessed were raw and undisciplined. It is one thing to have a flair for play-writing or even a ready wit with dialogue. It is quite another to apply these gifts in the strict and demanding terms of a fully articulated play so that they emerge with explicitness, precision and form. All of this and a great deal more I learned from George Kaufman.”
Moss Hart
Act One, pages 281-282

CLIMAX

In 1936, the Kaufman and Hart play You Can’t Take It with You premiered on Broadway and played for 838 performances.  The following year it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the movie version (screenplay by Robert Riskin) won the Best Picture Oscar. And this week, it’s probably playing at a high school or college near you. (For the past 80 years that play is consistently one of the top plays produced by amateur groups.)

P.S. So while there is a sense that Hart did teach himself how to write plays (as my post yesterday implied), Kaufman taught him how to do it well.

Scott W. Smith

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Playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart not only didn’t go to college, but he didn’t even finish high school. He grew up in “relative poverty” in the Bronx and at 17 was working in a fur vault in New York City spending his lunch breaks looking at the want ads. After 2 ½ years of pushing furs around he landed a job as an office boy for Broadway producer and began a career in theatre.

He also spent six years working as a summer camp social director with amateur theatrical groups (including Camp Utopia in the Poconos) in his early 20s and by age 26 had his first Broadway hit (Once in a Lifetime.) He would go on to be known for writing, with George S. Kaufman, You Can’t Take It with You and The Man Who Came to Dinner. He also wrote the script for the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born (1954) and received an Oscar-nomination for his script for Gentleman’s Agreement.

This is part of the self-eduction of Moss Hart received in libraries:

“I do not believe that play-writing can be taught any more than acting can be taught, and I am quite certain that I did not consciously think of play-writing seriously in relation to myself, for all during that time it never occurred to me to read a book on how plays are written. I simple read the plays themselves, I read the published version of plays that I had seen and then plays that I had never seen, sitting there day after day like a bacteriologist trying to isolate a strange germ under the beam of a new more powerful microscope. . . . I began to perceive and place proper perspective the distinction between plot and character, the difference between tricks of the trade and honest craftsmanship, and though I was hardly aware of it, I began to discern the gradual steps by which a play is built and, in the really good plays, the wonderful economy with which each salient point is made and not a moment on the stage is wasted.”
Moss Hart
Act One, page 125

P.S. Apparently being the social director at summer camps meant coming up with nightly entertainment. Something that Hart learned to do quite well at various camps in Vermont, Pennsylvania, and in upstate New York. So while Hart didn’t have a formal education, staging and performing plays by George Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, and George S. Kaufman nightly is arguably an education that colleges and universities can’t match. You’re learning what works and doesn’t work before a live audience. And as Hart pointed out, some of those theaters in the Catskills sat 1,500 people (attracting people from neighboring hotels).

Related post:
Can Screenwriting Be Taught?
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)

Scott W. Smith

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When Moss Hart was an office boy in New York City before becoming a Pulitzer and Tony-winning playwright, one of the perks of his job was free tickets to Broadway plays. This was in the early 1920s when there were 70 theatres “going full blast” at peak season. By pulling a few favors, and because new plays were opening all the time,  Hart was able to go to a different play every night. And because the tickets were free, much of what he saw were the bad plays.

“I am not suggesting that witnessing a spate of appallingly bad plays is a creditable method of learning how to write a good one, but it has its points. Though I had no idea whatever of writing plays at that time—the thought never crossed my mind— I am certain that some of those expository first acts, some of the ineptitudes of those second-act climaxes, and some of the stunning lack of invention in those third acts must have somehow seeped into my inner consciousness. The big ‘hit’ of any season almost seems absurdly simple; so effortlessly does it unfold, that it almost seems as though it could not have been written any other way. Watch a failure on the same subject, and you will see by what slim margin the mistakes have been by-passed, the cul-de-sacs averted in the hit. I am inclined to think those wretched plays I sat through stood me in good stead long after I’d forgotten what they were even about.”
Playwright and screenwriter Moss Hart (A Star is Born)
Act One, page 48

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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This is a repost from a 2010 post:

“I’m considered the most cynical of the group here at Pixar. I’m the first one to say when something is getting too corny or too sappy. Yet, I’d say I’m probably the biggest sucker romantic in the group, if the emotion is truthful.”
Andrew Stanton
Co-writer/co-director, Finding Nemo

“We always pride ourselves at Pixar on matching the subject matter of our movies with the medium. I really did know when (Stanton) said ‘fish’ and ‘underwater’ that this film was going to be great.”
John Lasseter
Executive Producer, Finding Nemo

When Finding Nemo screenwriter and director Andrew Stanton was a child back in Rockport, Massachusetts his dentist had a fish tank that made trips to the dentist’s office more enjoyable. A seed of an idea was planted and proved to be humble beginnings for a film that would go on to earn close to a billion dollars at the world-wide box office.

The 2003 film Finding Nemo also won an Oscar for Best Animated Picture and is the second best-selling DVD/Blu-ray of all time.

“When my son was five, I remember taking him to the park. I had been working long hours and felt guilty about not spending enough time with him. As we were walking, I was experiencing all this pent up emotion and thinking ‘I-miss-you, I-miss-you,’ but I spent the whole walk going, ‘Don’t touch that. Don’t do that. You’re gonna fall in there.’ And there was this third-party voice in my head saying ‘You’re completely wasting the entire moment that you’ve got with your son right now.’ I became obsessed with this premise that fear can deny a good father from being one. With that revelation, all the pieces fell into place and we ended up with our story.“
Andrew Stanton
Finding Nemo, story/co-writer/co-director
CG Society, The Making of  Finding Nemo

(Bob Peterson and David Reynolds also are credited on writing the Finding Nemo screenplay, and Lee Unkrich as the other co-director.)

Stanton graduated with a degree in character animation from CalArts and also was a writer on Monsters, Inc, Toy Story 2, WALL-E,  A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 3.

P.S. Just saw this this on Twitter (what a run):

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Scott W. Smith

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Upon hearing Emily Zulauf  on Scriptnotes (Episode 387) use the phrase “smart with heart” in relation to Pixar movies, I thought this would be a fitting time to repost one of the most read posts on this blog. (And it’s even better with the Michale Arndt video link at the bottom of the post.)  This was originally written in 2011 under the title Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2):

Toy Story 3 is about change. It’s about embracing change. It’s about people being faced with change and how they deal with it.”
Lee Unkrich
Director, Toy Story 3

“All the Toy Story films have been about mortality. It’s all about ‘Who am I? Am I going to be replaced?'”
Darla K. Anderson
Producer, Toy Story 3


It’s debatable whether Toy Story 3 was the best film of 2010, but from a filmmaking perspective it’s hard to top the 4-Disc Blu-ray/DVD combo that Pixar created for Toy Story 3. It shows how meticulous the Pixar team ( of “hundred and hundreds of people”) is in creating such wonderful movies. The team discusses how they took four years to create Toy Story 3, first creating a full length animatic story reel (sort of a rough, moving storyboard).

You’ll also learn quirky things in the behind the scene footage like how director Lee Unkrich loves steamed broccoli.

But since this is a blog on screenwriting…on the second disc you’ll find an excellent 8-minute recap by Toy Story 3 screenwriter Michael Arndt on how he came at the story.  He explains how he studied other Pixar films Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and  The Incredibles to see how they set up their worlds, characters and stories. Here’s a recap of his recap:

—Usually a script is about 100 pages with three acts with the first act about 25 pages long, the second act about 50 pages long, and the third act 25 pages.

—Introduce your main character and the world they live in.

—Introduce character doing the thing they love most. It’s the center of their whole universe.

—Expose hidden character flaw. In Toy Story, Woody takes pride in being Andy’s favorite toy.

—Storm clouds on the horizon. In Toy Story it’s Andy’s birthday party and all the toys being worried about being replaced.

—Baboom! Something comes in and turns your character’s life upside down. The thing that was their grand passion gets taken away from them. Woody gets displaced by Buzz.

—Add insult to injury. Something that makes the whole world seem unfair. Woody doesn’t just get replaced, he gets replaced by a total doofus.

—Character comes to a fork in the road and a choice must be made. Take the high road (the healthy responsible choice) or the low road (unhealthy, irresponsible choice). If the character chooses the right thing you really don’t have a story.

—In Toy Story, Woody could make the right choice and say—”I had my day in the sun.” We identify with his pain.  But he makes the unhealthy choice which leads to Buzz being pushed out the window which leads to other unhealthy choices. Woody then is forced by the other toys to find Buzz and bring him back—that’s your first act break.

—The character sets out on a journey where they have to get back what they lost and hopefully fix that little flaw they had when we first met them.

That sound you heard a while back was the cash register as Toy Story 3 ticket sales crossed the billion dollar mark.

Update 7/1/14: This video is now on YouTube.

Toy Story 3 is that rare film that not only was well received by critics and is winning awards, but at the box office it became the top moneymaker in 2010, the top animated film in history and is currently listed at #5 on the all-time world-wide box office list. All it took was four years, a few hundred talented people, and a little steamed  broccoli.

I don’t know if Pixar is as an enjoyable place to work as it looks on the behind the scene footage, but I’d sure like to spend a week there sweeping the floors just to soak in the culture.

Update 1/25/11: Just announced this morning, Toy Story 3 earned a total of 5 Academy Award nominations including not only Best Adapted Screenplay (Script by Michael Arndt/ Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich) and Best Animated Film, but for the big daddy itself, Best Picture. PopEater  quoted producer Darla K. Anderson saying, “We did take a lot of risks on this film — we had some moments of loss and poignancy. We risked Andy giving the toys away… And I wasn’t sure how people would respond to the film — but I knew we told the story we wanted to tell.”

Oscar Update: Here’s a video of Lee Unkrich receiving the Best Animated Feature Film of the Year Oscar for Toy Story 3 :

P.S. One of my favorite lines from Toy Story 3 is when the Piggy Bank says, “let’s go see how much we’re going for on eBay.”

And here are three more Pixar-related videos that were done since I first wrote this post.

MUST WATCH!!! Endings, The Good, The Bad, and the Insanely Great by Michael Arndt

Related posts:
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2) 
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 3)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 4)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (part 5) 

Scott W. Smith

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One of the benefits to this time of year is there are a lot of current Oscar-nominated screenplays that are easily available. Focus Features has the screenplay for BLACKkKLANSMAN on their website. Written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabonwitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee, the script is an excellent example of getting to the inciting incident quickly.

Beginning on page four the scene runs (without omissions) just under three pages.

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Without that scene the movie doesn’t happen. It gets the audience to lean forward and say to themselves, “This will be interesting to see how this plays out.”

And if there is a bookend to that setup it starts on page 29 of the script where Ron (who is now a detective) sees an ad for the Ku Klux Klan and decides to call and get more information.

Some could argue that making the call to the KKK and getting a meeting is really the inciting incident to the story. I’d call that the act 1 turning point, but it’s not really worth arguing. What’s key is getting hired and calling the KKK is the 1-2 punch that the writers used to hook the audience early and let them know what the movie is about. (And both of those scenes mentioned are a good example of What’s Changed?that every scene you write should have to one degree or another.)

One nice touch in the movie version of BLACKkKLANSMAN that’s different that the screenplay is when Ron goes to apply at the police station there is a sign about them welcoming diversity. Ron looks at it and reaches up and pats his afro. It’s a simple moment but one that sets the tone in letting the audience know that there is going to be some touches of humor in this movie.

It also signaled to me that actor John David Washington and director Spike Lee were in control of this movie. Though no one would call this a subtle movie (like Roma) I delight in those small moments.

Related links:

The Major or Central Dramatic Question
Thinking of the Inciting Incident as Electroshock
Starting Your Screenplay

Scott W. Smith  

 

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