Archive for July, 2020

“I always found that the harder a place was to get the more I enjoyed going there.”
—Jimmy Chin
(Who lived out of his car for six years as a mountain climber on his way to being an Academy Award winning filmmaker.)

Somewhere in a shoebox is a photo of me 15+ years ago in Georgetown, Colorado standing next to a restored late ’60s/early ’70s Ford Bronco that has always been my go-to dream vehicle. For whatever reason that boxy two door SUV just hits me in an emotional spot.

I guess that old Bronco hits a spot with a few other people because last week Ford unveiled their updated version of the Ford Bronco—and it looks similar to the design of the one that’s 50 years old. (An larger echo if you will.) And to top it off, they hired rock climber and self-taught photographer/filmmaker Jimmy Chin to help with the branding of the Bronco. Yeah, that’s a pretty good marriage.

Chin co-directed and co-produced Free Solo (featuring climber Alex Honnold) which won Best Documentary Feature at the 2019 Oscar Awards.  It’s been a few decades since I really got excited about a new vehicle. (No disrespect to Tesla.) But, yeah, that new two door Ford Bronco has me dreaming about returning to Georgetown, Colorado in my own Bronco someday.

P.S. Here’s a photo I took during my 6:45AM commute this morning. I think that new Bronco would transport my Kayak quite well.


Related post: ‘First Man’ vs. ‘Free Solo’

Scott W. Smith 


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Every once in a while someone will briefly come into your life and leave a lasting impression on you. I met Gehrig Chambless on a video shoot two years ago and I knew he was special.

He was only a high school senior but he could hold his own talking to college students. His attributes of intellect, politeness, good looks, and creativity stood out from the first hour I met him. I was not surprised to learn later that he was also the starting quarterback on his high school football team and tied a national high school baseball record for triples in a single game (4).

You didn’t know where he was going, but you knew he had a huge amount of potential. (Screenwriting was just one of his interests.) Unfortunately, in April he died in an accident. He was just 21. I’m saddened that the world will never benefit from all that he had to offer. At his memorial service his poem The Lonely Tavern was read and I was moved by it. This morning I came across the college publication where it was printed in 2018.


P.S. Gehrig (who was named after Yankee great Lou Gehrig) enjoyed spending time in northern Minnesota which is where Bob Dylan was born and raised. As I read The Lonely Tavern again this morning it made he think of Dylan’s Shelter from the Storm. 

Scott W. Smith 

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Screen Shot 2020-07-29 at 2.51.28 PM

Ramesh Santanam on The Inside Pitch interview with Oscar winning screenwriter Chris McQuarrie (at the 1:58:58 mark) asked a question about how he dealt with notes from studio executive in the development process and McQuarrie told this great story about a writer who said he got a the “dumbest note he’d ever received” from an executive while working on a remake of Walking Tall (1973). The executive wanted Sheriff Buford Pusser to have a 2″x4″ piece of wood that was a character in the story. McQuarrie didn’t think giving the 2×4 a personality was a dumb note at all.

“I said that’s an excellent note. And he said, ‘That’s the dumbest note,’ Because in his mind he saw Tommy the 2X4 that was a character in the story that had some voice, or spoke to Buford. And I said, ‘Buford and his wife are building a house, or his wife to be are building a house, when the villains of the movie come to kill Buford.  And in the process they fail to kill Buford but they burn his house to the ground. And in so doing his wife is killed. And Buford ends up in the hospital. Now when he gets out of the hospital the first thing he does is he goes to the wreckage of his burned home that was going to be the home where he was going to spend the rest of his life with his wife, and he pulls a 2×4 out from one of the unfinished walls, with nails sticking out of it, and he spends the rest of the movie beating the sh— out of people with that 2×4. Now, don’t you think every time you look at that 2×4 it doesn’t have some meaning? And don’t you think that 2×4 becomes his sidekick in the movie?’” 

Once McQuarrie explained it that way the writer admitted that is wasn’t a dumb note after all.  Back in 2011, I wrote a post called Objective Correlative (Tip #48) that is the fancy literary term T.S. Eliot used to explain how objects in stories have meaning. (Though the phrase was used in the 1800s.) It’s the glass unicorn in The Glass Menagerie, Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away, and Rosebud in Citizen Kane. 

McQuarrie says when you get a note from an executive, know that you are getting a note from someone who isn’t a writer. So what you need to try to do is understand the emotion behind the note. Then you find a way to fit that note into your “storytelling philosophy.” Fix their problem with the story with your understanding.

P.S. I don’t think I’ve seen the original walking tall since it played at the Prairie Lake Drive In back in the ’70s (might have caught a few minutes in TV), but I remember that vividly the character of Buford Pusser played by Joe Don Baker. (And I’d bet that Quentin Tarantino loved the original Walking Tall which is set in his home state of Tennessee.That movie just had to influence him. Just like Spielberg has the original sled from Citizen Kane above his writing desk,  I wouldn’t be surprised if Tarantino has the original 2×4 prop from Walking Tall above his writing desk.)

I’ll have to revisit the 2012 version of Walking Tall with Dwayne Johnson to see if the 2×4 (or a chunkier 4″x4″) had a character backstory.

Scott W. Smith 

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“What I’ve learned to do, probably really in just the last couple of films is to regard music and dialogue as very much one in the same. Dialogue is just as musical as music is a language. And by thinking of dialogue in musical terms, thinking of dialogue in terms of something that  conveys an emotion rather than information. It has changed they way that I write scenes. When I find myself writing something that is purely informational, if I can’t inject it with something like conflict, humor, tension, suspense, drama—especially conflict—then I know that what I’m doing is writing is information. And information is the death of  emotion. The biggest lesson I learned between Rouge Nation and Fallout was how to articulate that.  Somebody asked me about writing exposition and what was the secret to writing exposition and without thinking I said that ‘information is the death of emotion.’” Thinking about dialogue as a delivery device for emotion. That’s not to say it’s a character expressing emotions. There’s nothing less emotional than watching a character experience an emotion. What you want is the audience experiencing emotion through that character. That really changed the way I wrote dialogue. They way that I wrote exposition.”
—Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie  (Top Gun: Maverick)
The Inside Pitch interview with Christopher Lockhart 
(starting at the 1:55:02 mark)

P.S. Starting on August 1, I’m going to begin a string of posts on Hamilton which is a prime example of blending music and dialogue in what I found to be an emotional story.  If you haven’t seen the play or the taped version on Disney+ at least get the 10 day free subscription to check it out.  I look forward to exploring what Lin-Manuel Miranda created what is the best production I’ve seen this year.

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions
‘Exposition is BORING unless…’
Mysterious Minimal Exposition from ‘A Quiet Place’ and ’Sicario’
Cary Grant & Exposition (Tip # 38)
Screenwriting & Exposition (Tip #10)
Cody on Expo
10 Solid Exposition Examples 
Dialogue as Music (Aaron Sorkin)
‘I’m in the feelings business’—Brian Grazer 

Scott W. Smith 

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Christopher Lockhart’s two hour interview with writer/director Christopher McQuarrie— that was originally shown on the private Facebook group The Inside Pitch— is now on YouTube.

Here are two filmmaking lessons from the Mission: Impossible writer/director McQuarrie (the second which he said took him 25 years to articulate):


“I didn’t understand lens on my first film, and I never had one discussion about lens on the film. I do not know a single shot  in my first film—what lens it was shot on. I can guess it now because I’ve developed an eye for what lens are. Once you’ve determined who the audience is, the next most important conversation to have is about what is the lens? On my first film I never discussed the lens once. On Mission: Impossible Fallout, I had 3,000 setups in that movie. I had more setups than two Harry Potter movies combined. There was not one setup on that movie where the first conversation we had didn’t have the lens. We talked about the lens every single time. And what you need to think of when you think of lens. You can look up focal length. You can look up the rule of thirds. You can look up lighting. You can read all that stuff—all those books are so tedious and so boring, and I don’t understand them. And they’re really, really hard. Here’s what you need to do: when you look at a lens, look at the number on the focal length on the lens. Whether it’s an 18mm lens right up to, say, a 150 mm lens. The number on the lens signifies the amount of intimacy that that lens provides. And the more intimacy you want to put into the scene, or a line or a moment, the higher that number goes. And the more you want to stand back from the action the lower the number goes. . . understanding that principle when I was 20-years-old would have gotten me where I am a lot faster.”


“The other thing I want you to do is I want all of you to go out and take photographs. And I want you to do it with you phone. And what I want you to do when you’re taking the photograph is I want you to think about three things and only three things; lens, light, and location. And when you take a photograph and look at it and go ‘Why don’t I like this photograph?’ It is because one of three things, or all three of those things, are not in sync. And remember that you can almost always alter one of those three things. You can either change the light, you can change the location, or you can change the lens. On most iPhones now you can sort of pretend to change a lens. What we don’t understand when we’re first starting out, and what most people don’t tell us, they don’t make us aware of those things. They don’t make us aware of light. And so what happens is we look at the picture and we can’t understand why when we’re taking the picture that it doesn’t look like what our eye sees.. . . . So what you want to do is stop looking at the world through your eyes, and start looking at the world through the lens. If you don’t tell the lens what you want to see exactly, the lens will show you what it sees approximately  . . .  The first lesson in photography is just an awareness of those three things: lens, light, and location.”

Here’s an example of that from a photo I took last week with my iPhone. (Straight out of the camera with zero post production.)
Lens: I used the 2x (telephoto) on my iPhone 7 Plus to compress the tree in the foreground and the sunrise in the background.
Light: I knew the sunrise was at 6:41 so I had to be in position in my kayak before then. I also knew that the small sensor on the iPhone doesn’t actually handle the blinding sun well so I wanted to capture the sun just before it breaks the horizon. And because the camera want to expose for the tree in the foreground instead of the bright background, I had to use the slider to bring the exposure down. This would silhouette the tree which was the effect I wanted.
Location: Since I started kayaking four months ago I was familiar with the best places to shoot the sunrise. This cypress tree is my favorite location because I knew where I could position myself to get the best composition of the rising sun and the tree with Spanish moss to make it visually interesting. I was fortunate to get the clouds as they add extra visual interest. Perhaps the trickiest part was positioning myself on a kayak to be at the right place just before the sun shined through. There was less than 30 seconds to get the shot I wanted to get where the lens, light, and location came though.  The only thing that would have made it better was if I would of had Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) kayaking in the frame between the tree and the horizon. If Tom ever wants to make the two and a half hour trip from Clearwater to Orlando I’m up for a reshoot. (Seaplanes can land on the lake.) I’d even break out my Nikon for that.


Light, Lens, Location

Related posts:
I did go to film school so I’m not bored by all the technical aspects of cinematography. Here are some posts I’ve written about the subject over the years:
Wide, Normal, and Telephoto Lens Explained & Other Cinematography Resources 
The Five C’s of Cinematography
Cinematography for Directors
Cinematic Storytelling
Master Shots 
Film Directing Shot by Shot
Film Directing, Cinematic Motion
Oscar Winning Cinematography ( 1927-2016)
Cinematography (Overview)
Cinematographer Allen Daviau (1942—2020)
Cinematography Cheats #1 (Jerry Maguire)
‘It’s all about emotions’ Cinematographer Jamusz Kamunski
10 Cinematography Tips (Roger Deakins)

Scott W. Smith 

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“Here’s how you become a screenwriter: Get yourself a pencil and a piece of paper—you don‘t need a computer, you don’t need Final Draft— and write interior [INT] and then chose any location you want. And then decide whether it’s night or day.  You’re a screenwriter. There’s no such thing as an aspiring screenwriter or an inspiring filmmaker. You’re either creating or you’re not creating. I haven’t made it. And I’m making two Mission: Impossible movies and I’m producing Top Gun. I have’t made it—I’m making it. I’m in the process of making it to where I still dream of being, and you will be, too.”
Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart

A quick look online shows you can buy 100 sheets of paper for just over two dollars and pencils cost around twenty cents each. So that’s how I came up with three dollars. Now if you want to get fancy like Jerry Seinfeld and use a yellow legal pad and a pen that can push you to around the $10 mark. But the good news is, no massive student loan is required for either. (I believe Quentin Tarantino also uses a yellow legal pad to write his scripts.)

One of the themes that has emerged in writing a screenwriting blog for the past 12 years is screenwriters come from everywhere. And there are many contradictory views on screenwriting and filmmaking. What I’ve tried to do is curate many of those views and present them in a way that I hope will resonate with others and help them create. (And I hope to have news this month on how I’ve boiled the 3,000 posts over the years into a greatest hits of sorts into a 250 page book.)

McQuarrie’s advice reminds me of the story I once heard where William Faulkner was giving a talk to writers and asked them why they where there instead of writing.

Of course, if it was as easy as just write we’d all be walking around with Academy Awards and Nobel Prizes like McQuarrie and Faulkner. But McQuarrie didn’t say, “Here’s how you become an Academy Award winning screenwriter….”

So sharpen your pencils and get busy creating something today.

Related post:
The Myth of ‘Breaking In’

Scott W. Smith 




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“If you think you’re a failure as a writer because you’re failing, you’re doing it wrong. The whole idea is you’re supposed to be failing. You’re supposed to be learning from your mistakes. You’re supposed to be going through a process of trial and error and trial by fire. The strongest steel goes through the hottest fire. And everybody is so consumed with getting to a place of ‘success’—you don’t even know the definition of success as you define it. If you think money is success, let me tell you, money can turn into failure faster than anything. If you think a hit movies is a success— I had a really good experience, I had as good an experience you can have on my second feature film, my first sole writing credit, and won the Academy Award. It didn’t solve my problems for me. It created a lot more problems than it solved. And the night I won that award was not a happy evening. Bryan [Singer] and I weren’t speaking to each other, and I was in a miserable relationship. And more importantly, I didn’t know what my next job was. That’s not the case when I came up with the idea for The Usual Suspects.  I was working in a copy-room in a law firm in downtown Los Angeles. I was making a couple of bucks an hour. I was broke. I was and miserable, but I had an idea that I knew was a great idea. If I had to compare the two experiences; the experience of winning an Academy Award for The Usual Suspects or coming up with the idea? I’ll trade [for] coming up with the idea every time. 
Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart

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I was saddened to learn yesterday that actress Kelly Preston died of breast cancer at age 57. This scene from Jerry Maguire where her character and Tom Cruise’s character break up instantly came to mind. Though it’s been 24 years, I remember the impact of that scene the first time I saw it in theaters.

Scott W. Smith

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“Any writer that’s listening to me right now, you’ll gain a lot more knowledge by studying editing than you will by studying screenwriting. Screenwriting is something inside of you, it’s what you’re going to do. It’s going to be dictated by so many other things. Watch how movies are built. That’s where it really comes together.  Watch how movies evolve through the process of editing.”
—Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart

Of course, the catch—22 is how can you watch a movie be edited unless you”re working on the movie? Here are to three places to start:
1) Read the post: How Great movies are Made (and Why ‘The Godfather’ was Once a Pile of Spaghetti in the Edit Room) 

2) Watch this video featuring Water Murch who was ADR supervisor on The Godfather.

3) Watch The Godfather once again.

4) Buy these books on editing:
In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing by Walter Murch

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Film Editing by Michael Ondaatje

P.S. If you know if some resources showing how a movie evolves in the editing process send that info my way. If I recall correctly, the original script for Annie Hall and the finished film are one of the best examples of being radically different creations. A movie salvaged in the editing. It went on to win four Oscar awards including Best Picture and Best Writing.

Scott W. Smith 

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“Prep is the movie you want to make. Production is the movie you think you’re making. And post is the movie you made.”
—Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible—Fallout)
The Inside Pitch Facebook live interview with Christopher Lockhart

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