Archive for October, 2020

“The problems we face today eventually turn into blessings in the review mirror of life. In time, yesterday’s red light leads us to a greenlight.”
—Matthew McConaughey

This week I listened to Matthew McConaughey read/perform his entire book Greenlights and two key thoughts resonate:

  1. GREENLIGHTS. The metaphor of when you’re driving down the road hitting green light after green light. (To use Mihály Csíkszentmihályi research, that’s when we’re in the flow.) Hitting multiple green lights in a row is nice because so much of our life is filled with yellow and red lights.
  2. FORCED WINTER: This is like a prolonged red light. It’s annoying when we cycle through a set of lights and don’t get a green light for whatever reason. We’ve lot a few minutes trying to get where we’re going. But there are more difficult seasons of our lives where we get prolonged red lights for weeks, months or even years. McConaughey refers to these as “forced winters.” This global pandemic is a forced winter for many. Especially for those who’ve lost loved ones to the coronavirus, been sick themselves, lost work, or face added anxiety due to the overall disruption of life.

Part of the message of the book seems to be that there are lessons to learn at the red lights and in the forced winters. And that the long view is those times of resistance set us up for the red lights to turn into green lights and that we emerge from forced winters with renewed faith, hope, and opportunities.

Throughout his memoir McConaughey tells stories of his own red lights/forced winters: An odd year as an exchange student in Australia, his father dying while he was in college, and though once called “the new Paul Newman” his acting career cooled off leading him to a run doing romantic comedies. (No shame there—and well-paid— but not the kind of roles he ideally wanted to be doing.) Perhaps his best forced winter is one he forced upon himself when he starting turning down romantic comedies and moved from Malibu back to Austin. The phone eventually stopped ringing for acting gigs, and he says he even considered heading in a new career direction.

Then he rebounded with roles in a series of independent films which eventually led to his Oscar-winning performance in the Dallas Buyers Club. Of course, there’s no guarantee that that our red lights and forced winters will exalt us to such lofty heights, but it’s important to see others come out of the dark forest with a zest for life.

It seems like every tens years I hit a forced winter. I’m thankful that personally 2020 was a brief red light that turned into a series of green lights. First I finished my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles and secondly I bought a Hobie kayak in April for my socially distancing exercise.

In November, I’ll hit my 100th day out on a 440 acre lake. Usually I go out around sunrise for 60-90 minutes and it’s turned a funky season of life into one of my most pleasurable ever. Lots of egrets and hawks, an occasional gator and/or bald eagle, and overall peace and beauty. I took this photo yesterday as a crew team was practicing in the early morning. (It was a rather pedestrian iPhone shot so I ran it through the Prisma Photo Editor app.)

Crew team on Lake Howell—October 30, 2020

If you’re at a red light or in a forced winter, I hope you can look back and have the perspective that other rough times you’ve been through actually set you up for a series of “greenlights.” New relationships, new job opportunities, new adventures.

P.S. Looking back, I realize this blog (and therefore the book) are the result of a forced winter. I moved to the midwest in 2003 for what I thought was a freelance producer gig in Chicago that promised to be a full time gig once a hiring freeze was lifted. The hiring freeze never was lifted and the production arm of the group eventually shut down. But that set up a great 10 year run in Cedar Falls, Iowa—but only after a hard start. (And I actually found the literal cold winters exhilarating.)

Scott W. Smith

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Last night I caught the last inning of the final game of the 2020 World Series. I was unaware that the Dodgers hadn’t won a World Series since 1988.

That was the year that Oral Hershiser finished one of the best seasons of any pitcher in baseball history. He set a still standing record of pitching 59 straight scoreless innings that year. He also won two World Series games as pitcher and named the 1988 Series MVP.

In 2000 I helped edit a video for a Oral Hershiser celebration (birthday?) and was given a Hershiser autographed baseball from his agent which I still own. One more reminder that when you join the circus world of production you never know whose path you’re going to cross.

P.S. While I was in film school in 1983 I was an intern on the cable TV show Alive & Well that taped its shows at a hotel in Marina del Rey. One of the guests was Steve Yeager, the catcher for the Dodgers during the “Fernandomania” era (named after Fernando Valenzuela). I mentioned to Yeager about LA being a plastic town and I’ll never forget his response, “If you live in a plastic town long enough, you won’t even notice the plastic.”

Congrats to the LA Dodgers—and the LA Lakers—for adding some gold to the Los Angeles trophy case this year.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“Create structure so you can have freedom.”
—Matthew McConaughey

Today I started listening to the audio version of Matthew McConaughey’s book Greenlights. His Texas drawl is worlds away from Orson Welles’ voice, but they share that gift in that their voices could make reading the federal income tax code sound interesting. Or an ad for a Lincoln.

At 38 minutes into the first chapter of McConaughey’s storytelling memoir I was inspired to get back in the saddle. My original goal in writing the book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles was to have the audio version released last month with the book. I failed.

Just getting the book done and out was a marathon. I had trouble getting getting psyched up for the the audio version. All the more so because I’m the voice talent, the audio engineer, the director, and the editor. I have a simple basic audio recording setup in my home office closet, and know how to use the gear, but being mentally prepared to record has proven difficult.

But after listening to McConaughey I’m ready to just say “Alright, alright, alright”—and am setting a goal to record a chapter a day. Or to finish recording by November 14 at the latest.

“Creativity needs borders.”
—Matthew McConaughey
One of his “bumperstickers” (one word) in Greenlights

Yes, that music stand does say “Bitch” in the corner. I bought it a Minneapolis antique store and was told it was from an area public school. (Who hates the music teacher?)

Now I’m not going to sound as cool as McConaughey, but you do what you can, with what you have, where you are, right?

Funny thing about the McConaughey vibe is he feels like an old school friend no matter your age or where you grew up. Just someone you liked to hangout with. Then there’s the Texas thing on top of that. Even before he came on the scene in Dazed and Confused (1993), Texas was on my radar.

I was conceived in San Angelo, Texas where my father was stationed as an Air Force pilot. In the early 70’s (in Florida) I pulled for the Dallas Cowboys even though the Miami Dolphins where heading for a undefeated and Super Bowl winning season. As a high school football player in the late ’70s I read Gary Shaw’s book Meat on the Hook: The Hidden World of Texas Football and oddly dreamed about playing football in Austin.

I first spent a little time in Austin in the ’90s and thought it was an ideal down. Part hippy town, part college town (with a top film school at UT—Austin), part political town, part tech town, and part musicians town. I bought an cool old piano stool there for my pianist wife because I was told it came from a “Hacienda in Mexico.” No shortage of storytellers in Austin. And no shortage of people wanting to move there.

McConaughey calls Austin “the blueberry in the tomato soup” and the influx of Californians won’t change that politically, but come back in 2030 and see who’s changed who the most. One thing that can stop the Californication of Texas is the Minster of Culture—Matthew McConaughey. Who also has a side gig teaching at class at UT called Script to Screen.

And, I should end this post mentioning that Austin is home to the Austin Film Festival which just happens to being going on this week.

P.P.S. Here’s a famous example of Orson Welles showing how difficult recording audio can be.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“I would never write about someone who was not at the end of his rope.”
—Novelist Stanley Elkin

Over the weekend I listened to more than four hours of interviews with actor Matthew McConaughey. (The Joe Rogan Experience, The Tim Ferris Show, and WTF with Marc Maron). McConaughey was promoting his new book Greenlights and I’ll admit that I dig half of what he says and the other half I don’t fully understand—thoughts that requires time to ponder a little more. It’s like some kind of mystic Texas wisdom somewhere between a bumper sticker and prophecy.

One of key things I locked onto was when McConaughey said romantic comedies were like casual Saturdays, but in dramas “there’s no roof, there’s no basement.” Romantic comedies are flip flops, shorts, and sunny days. We need those, especially after a stressful week. (Or during a stressful pandemic.)

The highs and lows are more compressed in romantic comedies, and the stakes are most often a version of will the guy get the girl, or the girl get the guy. But the stakes in the best dramas are dealing with the end of the line. A crushing life/career blow or possibly a life or death situation. (And without being melodramatic.)

“That’s what’s great about dramas— the basement of your lowest base levels of pain, and rage and everything, it’s as low as an actor [wants to go]. It’s up to me. It’s up to me and that character. I can as far deep as I want to go. Now the ceiling of joy, of life—the vitality of that—is as high as I want it to be.”
—Matthew McConaughey
WTP with Marc Maron podcast

You want to know what that low-low looks like? Here’s a scene from Dallas Buyers Club where McConaughey (as Ron Woodroof) is—to use Elkins’ phrase—at the end of his rope. In the first ten minutes of the film Woodroof learns he’s HIV positive and the doctors estimate he has 30 days to live. This is day 29.

Zero words of dialogue, one Oscar Award for Best Actor.

Dallas Buyer Club was written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. It won three three Oscars total including Jared Leto’s supporting actor role.

P.S. Here’s McConaughey explaining to Joe Rogan what it took for him to physically prepare for the role in Dallas Buyers Club where he dropped 50 pounds off his normal weight.

Related post:
40 Days of Emotions (Reflects on 40 days of posts I wrote on emotions in movies.)
Storytelling Without Dialogue

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting Brass Knuckles

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“The artists who hold our attention have something eating away at them, and they never quite define it, but it’s always there.”
—Bruce Springsteen
The Atlantic article by David Brooks

The one thing I’ve done that Bruce Springsteen never did was work in a factory. In fact, he confessed on Springsteen on Broadway that he never had a “job” until he did the Broadway show. He built his common working man on the back of his father who did work in a factory.

But make no mistake, Springsteen worked his ass off for his success. Let’s call him the uncommon working man. His Darkness on the Edge of Town came out while I was in high school, and I was in the LA Coliseum for the final concert on his Born in the USA tour, so I’ve been on the Springsteen train a long time.

Heard a super interview he did with Steven Inskeep this morning on NPR and learned that Springsteen has a new album and documentary (on Apple+) out called Letter to You. Here’s a great quote from the NPR interview that I think you can translate into whatever you’re trying to accomplish in your work.

“I learned the majority of my craft, or the certainly the beginning pieces of it over those three years [1965-1968]; you know, how to perform, how to play in front of every kind of audience. We played bowling alleys, pizza parlors, firemen’s fairs, Elks clubs, Knights of Columbus, CYO dances, high school dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs. We played in front of virtually every audience you can imagine.
—Bruce Springsteen

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“Quibi was founded to create the next generation of storytelling. We have assembled a world-class creative and engineering team that has created an original platform fueled by groundbreaking technology and IP, enabling consumers to view premium content in a whole new way. The world has changed dramatically since Quibi launched and our standalone business model is no longer viable. I am deeply grateful to our employees, investors, talent, studio partners and advertisers for their partnership in bringing Quibi to millions of mobile devices.”
—Jeffrey Katzenberg in a statement October 21, 2020

Quibi had everything going for it when in launched in April of 2020. It had key personal (Jeffrey Katzenberg, Meg Whitman) and a large mix of talent talent in place (Steven Spielberg, Anna Kendrick, Kevin Hart, the Kardashians, Sam Raimi, Jennifer Lopez), Silicon Valley tech support, engineers and app developers, a clear vision, and lots of money ($1.75 billion in funding).

It even launched in the early stages of the global COVID-19 pandemic as people began quarantining at home (instead of going to work, working out, eating out, shopping, enjoying nightlife, and going to sporting events and movies). Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu saw an uptick in subscribers.

But here we are six months later and Quibi and its short form entertainment never caught on in a sustainable way and announced today that it was shutting down after not finding a buyer. It turns out that people didn’t want to pay for its “Quick Bites. Big Stories” they could watch on their phones.

Turns out this is what people watched to watch for free on their phones via TikTok:

Nathan Apodaca’s investment? About $2.89—the cost of Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry at Target. The video went viral including videos done by others including Fleetwood Mac’s own Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks.

And just like that the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album became a top 10 Billboard album this week—a place it hasn’t been since the year it was released in 1978. I imagine sales of that Ocean Spray drink has shot up as well. If Nathan Apodaca (420doggface208 on TikTok) played his cards right, he got a nice return on his three dollar investment.

Meanwhile, back at the Quibi ranch, they are returning some of the investor’s money and released a classy open letter today to employees, investors, and partners apologizing for disappointing and letting down supporters.

But how cool that they were swinging for the fences? Think of all the content creators that got paid to create short form videos. Part of that $1.75 billion went to pay bills for a lot of creative people. It’s capitalism at work in the free market. Sometimes there’s a healthy return, sometimes you break even, and sometimes you lose some or all of your investment.

So a big thank you CEO Meg Whitman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the investors, and the Quibi team for trying something new.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles (The last chapter that book is about the merging of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.)

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“Here’s what’s key in creating drama—intention and obstacle. That’s what you’ve got to cling to. . . .”
—Oscar winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)

Related posts:
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Aaron Sorkin on ‘90% of the Battle’ in Screenwriting
Screenwriting vs. Finger Painting (Aaron Sorkin on the Rules of Art)

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“I graduated from Oberlin College in fifty-two, did the Army for two years, then went to graduate school at Columbia University for two years. It was then the summer of 1956. I was twenty-four, and I’d always wanted to be a writer. I’d shown no signs of talent. I got the worst grades in class.”
—William Goldman
Shoptalk by Dennis Brown

Unpublished William Goldman was living in Chicago in 1956 and figured it was time to “fish or cut bait” on his dream of being a writer and wrote a short novel called The Temple of Gold. A guy he knew in the Army helped him connect with a editor at Knopf who said if he doubled the length they’d publish it and that’s how it went down. Goldman was 26 when it was published. If that hadn’t of happened he says the whole trajectory of his life would have been different.

“I would have never written anything more. Since I had shown no signs of talent, and since no one was saying, ‘Keep at it, Bill, you’ve really got the goods,’ if The Temple of Gold had not been taken, I never would have had the courage to inflict another novel on anybody. I know this is true.
—William Goldman

Goldman was said to write his second novel Your Turn to Curtsy, My Time to Bow in 7 to 10 days. The first movie made from a novel of his was Soldier in the Rain (1963). He wrote the screenplay for Harper (1966) starring Paul Newman and before his career was over he’d win two Academy Awards (All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid) as well as write the screenplays for Marathon Man, Misery, and The Princess Bride.

Aaron Sorkin called him the “dean of American screenwriters.” Goldman did okay for someone who’d shown no sign of talent.

Related Post:
The Dean of American Screenwriting—William Goldman (1931-2018
Writing Quote #64 (Bernard Malamud) “I felt the years go by without accomplishment…”

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“Begin with the end in mind.”
—Stephen Covey 
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Even in the mist of the second largest theater chain (Regal) announcing this month that they are temporarily closing all their theaters due to the coronavirus, Ted Hope is still optimistic for the future of movies.

“You really need to define for yourself what matters in life. What are your values? . . . Defining those values is really key. Because at the end if you’re going to do good work you have to plan for the long haul. . . . I’m super excited about what’s coming [to the film business]. I’m really excited. And that’s hard to do because not everyone in this in this field, in this art form, in this business and enterprise, and certainly in this world and in this country, are actually good people. Big surprise, right? I think people aspire to do good work, but there’s a lot of people that are liars and cheats, misanthropes and malcontents, egotist and narcissists. The industry attracts a lot of that—people who want the success without doing the work, and you have to be able to not let that bring you down. So you need to understand how you’re going to be advancing your own values, bringing things closer to the world that you want. Surrounding yourself with the people that you care about, and who are similarly motivated. And you’re not going to do that unless you start to define it.”
—Producer Ted Hope
Ted Hope: Master Class in Film Producing interview with Anthony Kaufman

Hope’s words match well producer Lawrence Turman’s quote on ethics from the post Pursue Your Dreams and Don’t Be Afraid to Trying to Inspire, to Lead, and to Exalt.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do what is right.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Here are rare words from a Hollywood producer that could be accompanied by a Hammond organ:

“It may sound pretentious, but what I believe I really teach are values. Film is the conduit, the medium—not the message. I try to imbue my students with a strong desire to search out meaningful themes on pertinent, life-affirming subjects, to be true to and trust their own values, and to harness and hone them within the commercial film and television world; to value their hearts as much as their brains; and to be aware of the larger world, which can only enhance their chosen field and more importantly, their own lives. There can be meaningful work outside of the commercial mainstream. I encourage my students to pursue their dreams and to not be afraid of trying to inspire, to lead, to exalt. I passionately believe in the transforming power of beauty and art. Life is more important but, happily, art and life can be conjoined. How you live your life is more important than what you do in life.”
—Producer Lawrence Turman (The Graduate)
So You Want to Be a Producer
Page 10

Can I get an amen?

Perhaps the only thing more surprising than that paragraph being written by a Hollywood producer, is that Turman thought it was important enough to be included in the first ten pages of his book. And (at least when the book was published in 2005) Turman says that the very first seminar/lecture for students at The Peter Stark Producing Program at USC focuses on ethics.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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