Archive for September, 2020

“You can’t learn bull riding, except by getting on the bull.”
—David Mamet

Several years ago I wrote a post titled Can Screenwriting Be Taught? and I used parts of that for the introduction to my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles.

Some say writing is a natural gift like a bird taking flight, and others say it’s a craft that—like plumbing or playing the violin—takes time to become proficient. The title of this post comes from screenwriter/playwright David Mamet giving a thumbnail-sized version of Aristotle’s Poetics; Start at the beginning and when you get to the end—stop.

That’s on par with advice that William Faulkner gave when people came to hear him give a talk about writing. He reportedly asked that if they wanted to be writers what they were doing there instead of home writing.

When Emmy-winning writer Hugh Wilson was asked about the writing process he said, “I think there’s a whole lot of spooky-dust involved in this.” Yes, there is a mysterious process to writing and you need talent. But is there something more tangible? Helpful? Well, you definitely don’t need a formal education as many have proven, but at some point you do need to learn dramatic principles.

In the introduction to my book I chose to highlight Moss Hart specifically because he grew up in poverty, never went to college, and launched his career during The Great Depression. Nor was he the kind of writer who just flapped his wings and flew to instant success.

“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:  An Autobiography

But before Hart learned from Kaufman, he spent time summers in the Catskills Mountains (then known as the Borsch Belt) where he directed several plays each week over the summer at popular resorts. (At one point he was the entertainment director in charge of 70 people.) And he only got that job because he had a passion for theater in New York City where he sometimes directed plays after work.

He worked in a fur warehouse for over two years until he got an office job with a theater manager. One of the perks of the job was he was able to get free tickets to see Broadway plays nightly. This was in an era before television when there where over 70 theaters on during peak season in New York City. Moss said he learned from bad plays as well as the good ones.

“I simply 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.”
—Moss Hart
Act One

All of those experiences led to Hart’s first Broadway hit (Once in a Lifetime) at age 26. A decade later Kaufman and Hart won the Pulitzer Prize for their depression era play You Can’t Take it with You. As a screenwriter, Hart earned two Oscar nominations and wrote the 1934 version of A Star is Born starring Judy Garland.

Scott W. Smith

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As I watched the Miami Hurricanes football team beat Florida State on Saturday I smiled when I saw the new brass knuckles-like rings that Miami used to celebrate to touchdowns this year.

Here’s the preface to my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles. The book is kind of a greatest hits of the more than 3,000 blog posts I’ve written. Please consider buying a the eBook or paperback as a way to support what I’ve been doing here since 2008. (And starting today, I’m going to make it my goal to go back to blogging daily through the rest of 2020.)


“I wasn’t born knowing how to write a play.”
—Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright

“I wrote screenplays as a way to get into production. I wrote six or seven before I sold one.”
—Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars: Episode V)

In the more than 12 years of writingthe blog Screenwriting from Iowa . . . and Other Unlikely Places, I’ve found advice and insight on the creative process from more than 700 gifted screenwriters, filmmakers, and teachers. I realized that I could consolidate and curate the most powerful of that material as a book, revising and reorganizing it in ways that I thought would be most helpful to people’s creative journeys. I want these ideas to function like brass knuckles in an old-school professional wrestling match.

I don’t know if Aristotle ever used brass knuckles, but they are said to have been around since the ancient Greeks. Abraham Lincoln’s secret service men carried brass knuckles. And legend has it that brass knuckles were Al Capone’s favorite weapon.

The term “loaded fist” in Japanese martial arts refers to a martial arts version of brass knuckles that can turn a punch into a sledgehammer. As a troubled youth in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee carried brass knuckles, giving a twist of meaning to his trademark movie Fist of Fury.

Today brass knuckles are brandished in popular video games and music videos. Spike Lee even wore brass knuckles to the 2019 Academy Awards.

My introduction to brass knuckles was watching professional wrestling on TV as a kid. This was not the high-dollar spectacle of today but the low-budget version, usually taped in a small studio in Tampa, Florida.

Actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s father, Rocky Johnson, was a wrestler in the pre-WWE era when professional wrestling was more regionally orientated and the bag of tricks and storylines were more limited.  (Rocky Johnson was actually the 1976 NWA Brass Knuckles Champion.)

This was at a time in my youth when I didn’t know if professional wrestling was real or not. What I did know was that professional wrestling had a cast of characters with colorful names like Abdullah the Butcher, André the Giant, and Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes and it was flat out entertaining. (Rhodes was the main influence Hulk Hogan used as Hulkamania helped transform pro wrestling into a global phenomenon.)

Inevitably, back then when one wrestler was getting beat up and close to losing a match, brass knuckles would magically appear (usually emerging from someone’s wrestling trunks).

The announcer Gordon Solie would say something like, Wait a minute, what’s he have in his right hand? It looks like a foreign object. Oh no, it looks like a pair of brass knuckles!

At the last minute, this would give the almost beaten wrestler an upper hand in the match. It would result in not only a victory for the trickster but also in a fake bloody mess. For a ten-year-old boy this was as good as a vampire movie.

My goal with this book is not to create a bloody mess, but to offer the equivalent of brass knuckles for writers — screenwriters in particular. Ideas found in this book can serve as powerful resources in urgent moments of desperation—or to avoid those moments altogether.

By screenwriting I mean any screen: the big screen, TV, computers, tablets, mobile devices, virtual reality, video games, and even some non-screen dramatic writing such as theater and podcasts.

This is one of the reasons why I break from transitional conventions of making a differentiation between a screenwriter and a TV writer. What do we call someone who writes for Netflix? A streaming writer? So I just call anyone who writes for something to be viewed on a screen (big screen, little screen, TV, computer, iPad, mobile phone)—I call them a screenwriter.

This book will not substitute for a good writing teacher or mentor, but it can give you some valuable ideas to hang on to, “foreign objects” thrown into the ring as you struggle to craft and tell your own stories.

P.S. The linage of Dusty Rhodes, to Hulk Hogan, to Dwayne Johnson is rather amazing when you think they all have roots to Tampa, Florida.

File this under, it’s a small world: A longtime production friend of mine, Randy Baker, worked with Hulk Hogan on the show Hogan Knows Best and actually was a key person in encouraging me to purchasing my first camera back in 2003. Baker teaches at Full Sail and is currently working on a low budget feature.

Scott W. Smith

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”I think it’s one of those times to really think about everything that’s important in your life.”
—Surfer Kelly Slater (on the pandemic in 2020)
The Tim Ferriss Show

Sign in Cocoa Beach, FL (September 2020)

On Saturday I went to the beach for the first time since things started getting funky with COVID-19 in March.

It was a great summer day and a reminder of what the world was like just earlier this year.

I spent a little time in the water at Cocoa Beach and Satellite Beach. And I filled part of my drive time with an interview the surfing legend Kelly Slater did with Tim Ferriss.

Slater grew up in Cocoa Beach and it was fitting I drove by a statue of him (twice) that they have there on A1A. Slater’s 48 now with 11 World Surf League titles to his name including being both the youngest and the oldest WSL champ.

And he’s still active and competing against men more than half his age. What I liked about the interview is Slater is heading into new territory as he thinks about his future.

Who hasn’t lived through the last six months without thinking that they’re heading into new territory and thinking about your future?

I’d been pushing so hard to get my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles published this month that I kind of hit a wall afterwards. Not quite the “tunnel vision syndrome” that elite athletes have after the Olympic games are over on when they retire, but just a little let down. Hunting for that reset button.

I thought once the book hit I might try blogging twice a day for a couple weeks. Instead, here I am with my first blog post in over a week.

But thank you to those if you who purchased the eBook and/or paperback. I had hoped to have an audio version released at the same time, but now hoping to have that done by the end of the year.

I did convert the closet in my home office into a makeshift VO booth (and a place to try to less annoy my wife during zoom meetings). And starting a podcast and producing some YouTube videos is on my shortlist to launch this year as well. (Not sure what the podcast looks like, but I welcome your suggestions.)

My guess is 2020 is going to going down as one gigantic transition year. My hope is that we emerge from it better people, in a better world.

P.S. Slater talks on the podcast about his friends who have been foiling (or foil surfing) in Cape Canaveral with incredible mile long rides. Here are two videos that I found online that adds a new wrinkle to water sports. (Tow foiling and wing foiling. Both of these videos were shot about an hour from Orlando. Something to add to my wish list to try.)

Scott W. Smith

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“The good news is, you’ve already taken the initiative by reading this book. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Iowa or Iceland. You don’t need an agent or a manager. You don’t need to place first in a screenplay competition. You don’t need to wait to wait for permission. All you need, is to start.”
—Screenwriter Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place)
From the forward to Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

Look out Casey Neistat — I just published my second YouTube video on this channel in the past six years. It’s a teaser for my book
Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles which is now available on Amazon.

Many thanks to those of you who’ve been longtime readers of this blog. When I started blogging in January 2008 my original idea was to sort of blog a book in a year. Now after 3,000 posts later here it is. (But more of a stand alone book than I originally planned.) Wouldn’t have gotten here without all the people continuing to read the website.

I am thinking about doing more videos. Perhaps monthly. Perhaps weekly. We’ll see.

Like the book cover I wrote about in my last post, for this video I gathered some ideas and concepts and did a rough edit of this teaser then sent it to editor Josh McCabe who I used to work with Iowa and let him do his magic. Josh has worked on projects with national brands including NBC and Smashbox, and did a stint with TBWA in LA. Check out his website and contact him there if you have a project you need edited.

Scott W. Smith

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Because I am drawn to clean and simple (even understated) design I knew that was what I was aiming for with the book cover of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles. (Think the Nike swoosh, the Apple logo, or the “U” design for the University of Miami.)

This is what Predrag Capo came up with that exceeded my expectations. (He’s based in Serbia and can be reached on 99designs/ CsapoDesign).

In my original brief here is my feeble attempt to draw what I had in mind. Capo took that idea and ran with it. I thought I wanted a white background, but he flipped it around and presented a concept that I liked better. The best idea wins is a good motto to go by.

The digital version of the book is in presale for release on Monday. And you can order the paperback version now. They say the first week of sales is important to gain momentum, so please show your support by buying one (or buying a dozen.) And please take the time to leave a review on Amazon as I’m told that also makes a difference.

P.S. In the coming days I’ll pass on the secret handshake of writing and publishing a book. Though it took me 12 years, there are only 10 or 20 steps you need to do to publish your own book. It’s not a bad skill to pick up in these uncertain times.

Scott W. Smith

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“The good news is, you’ve already taken the initiative by reading this book. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Iowa or Iceland. You don’t need an agent or a manager. You don’t need to place first in a screenplay competition. You don’t need to wait to wait for permission. All you need, is to start.”
—Screenwriters Scott Beck & Bryan Woods in the forward to Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles


Man, I could write a book on writing a book. What started out a blog a book a year in 2008, turned a 12 year journey. Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles will officially launch on September 14 on Amazon. You can preorder the digital version now, and the paperback soon. (I’m also working on an audio version.)

One writer friend who read it said it’s like a greatest hits of screenwriting advice. I’ll take that. What I tried to do with this blog over the years is curate the most helpful (and often contradictory) advice my some of the top writers throughout the history of film and television.

Call it the era between Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1897) and the global pandemic that forced movie theaters to shut down for months in 2020. With a little Shakespeare and Aristotle thrown in to make me appear smarter than I am.

I asked my wife what we were going to do with the profits and she said, “Take me to IHOP.” Granted screenwriting books are a niche market (and there’s no shortage of them), but if this blog has been helpful to you over the days/weeks/months/years then please purchase a copy so I can take my wife to IHOP as soon as it’s safe to eat inside. That Classic BreakFAST Sampler is starting to sound good.

Next week I’ll talk about the process of writing the book. Those of you wanting to write a book will find it helpful. Others will find my #uphillallthewayeveryday battle entertaining. There’s been such a big learning curve.

But there have been a few peak moments. And one of them I’ll announce today for the first time is screenwriter Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) wrote the forward to the book. Beck/Woods graduated from the University of Iowa in 2008 before heading off to Hollywood to find great success.

Deadline just announced on September 1 that Beck/Woods are set to write and direct 65 starring Adam Driver.

P.S. I’m going to give away an older camera of mine as a promotion to this book. The Pansonic HVX 200 is an older camera, but in the right hands you can create some magic. (I believe the indie film Puffy Chair was shot with an HVX.) Still trying to figure out details on how merge that with a book promotion so if you have any ideas email me at info@scottwsmith.com.

Scott W. Smith

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Once when I was in film school I skipped a class to go to a double feature at a revival house (in Pasadena, I believe) that was showing Tender Mercies and Tomorrow. Both starred Robert Duvall and were written by playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote.

Foote won his first Oscar Award for writing To Kill a Mockingbird, and his second 21 years later for Tender Mercies. Foote also won a Primetime Emmy for his script for Old Man (1997). 

And to round out his Mt. Rushmore of films, The Trip to Bountiful was nominated for both an Oscar and a Emmy. The film version starring Geraldine Page was release in 1985 and the TV version starring Cicely Tyson in 2014.

His career spanned more than sixty years. Though he spent time in New York City and Los Angeles the are that he was known for indirectly exploring in his writings could be considered an Unlikely Place—his hometown of Wharton, Texas (about 60 miles south of Houston).

The Bruce Beresford directed Tender Mercies is on my short list of all-time favorite films. It moved me from the first time I saw it, and was the first movie I ever saw three times in theaters. It came out in the early days of MTV and stylistically worlds apart from Journey’s Separate Ways (Worlds Apart) music video that also came out in 1983.

Film critic Pauline Kael called it a “bare-bone art movie” that “Mostly the picture consists of silences; long shots of the bleak, flat land, showing the horizon line (it gives the film integrity).”  If that doesn’t make you want to watch it tonight, consider that it was Duvall’s sole Oscar win.

The supporting cast of Ellen Barkin, Wilford Brimley, Betty Buckley, Tess Harper, and Allen Hubbard, the cinematography of Russell Boyd, and the art direction of Jeannine Oppewall all helped make this an extraordinary film and I’m always disappointed it never shows up on those 100 greatest American movies list.

Foote also wrote essays and won a Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man from Atlanta.  So I was interested to come across this exchange on the internet called A Conversation with Horton Foote :

Ramona Cearley: Much of your writing evokes a lyrical sense of place and strength of character. Where do your stories begin? How do you choose what to write about?

Horton Foote: I suppose it is oversimplification that you write about what you know. I’ve never really analyzed it. It’s a very mysterious process, this finding what you want to write about and how it appears and how it urges you to finish it and to go through all the pain.

I’ve said this before that some giants of dramatic writing often aren’t the best to reveal their creative process. Like baseball great Ted Williams being asked how he hits a baseball so well, and reportedly replying, I wait for a good pitch and I swing.

What I’ve tried to do in my book coming out this month is extrapolate, synthesis, and curate the best screenwriting advice from Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1987) to the shutting down of movie theaters during the coronavirus. More on that in the next two weeks, but you can pre-order Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles here.

But here’s some real practical advice from the master that was done before high speed internet became ubiquitous.

“The main thing about writing is perseverance. It’s a job that you can easily be distracted from; there are a lot of temptations. When I was coming along, we didn’t have the temptation of television. You could spend the rest of your life listening to that if you weren’t careful. Writing is a lonely journey, and writers have to find their own way. That’s the most important thing: to realize that your own voice is the most important gift you have.”
—Horton Foote

Related posts:
Screenwriting Quote of the Day #56 (Horton Foote)

Scott W. Smith 


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