Archive for December, 2020

Walker Percy once stated that every writer secretly wanted to be Aleksandr Solzhistsyn. That they would write something so powerful that it would tick off the Soviet government to the point that they would be arrested and sent to the Gulag. A life of forced labor until you died.

But the Gulag and the Soviet Union are a part of the past so writers will have to find other ways to impact the culture.

Producer/screenwriter Craig Mazin angered the Russians leaders enough with his HBO mini-series Chernobyl last year that a month after the five-part series aired it was announced that Russian State TV was producing its own version of what really happened. That’s not as good as going to the Gulag, but maybe better than all the Emmys the HBO version won.

But if I was Mazin, I wouldn’t plan on taking any vacations soon to Moscow, and I’d be aware of anyone walking behind me carrying an umbrella—especially in sunny Los Angeles.

Apparently, the Russian backed version will correct all the lies of Mazin’s version. Mainly their version of the disaster was caused by a CIA agent.

Back in July, in my post ‘Chernobyl’: Craig Mazin’s Real Life Scary Movie Lands 19 Emmy Nominations, I said that I not only thought it was Tv’s best show of the year, but stood with the best throughout TV history. (I was glad to hear Tom Hanks just say something to that effect a few days ago.)

Apparently, a few months after the airing of Chernobyl is when COVID-19 appeared on the scene leaving a tremendous impact on the world. (The cost so far is 1.7 million lives globally.) We may never even know the truth of where and how this virus started and spread. But the shot clearly heard in Chernobyl is we need to be careful of leaders who tell lies.

Chernobyl even plays better now than it did last year. And with that mini-series Mazin joins Euripides, Shakespeare, and Arthur Miller in being a social critic.

“We’ve lost the technique of grappling with the world that Homer had, that Aschylus had, that Euripides had. And Shakespeare. How amazing it is that people who adore the Greek drama fail to see that these great works are works of a man confronting his society, the illusions of the society, the faiths of the society. They’re social documents, not little private conversations. We just got educated into thinking this is all ‘a story,’ a myth for its own sake. [There will be a return to social drama] if theater is to survive. Look at Moliere. You can’t conceive of him except as a social playwright. He’s a social critic. Bathes up to his neck in what’s going on around him.”
—Arthur Miller
Interview in 1966 with Olga Carlise and Rose Styron found in Playwrights at Work

Here are the links to the scripts of all five episodes.

Script | Episode 1, “1 : 23 : 45”
Script | Episode 2: “Please Remain Calm”
Script | Episode 3: “Open Wide, O Earth”
Script | Episode 4: “The Happiness Of All Mankind”
Script | Episode 5: “Vichnaya Pamyat”

P.S. With my junior Photoshop skills I’ve created my first meme based on the terrific Chernobyl poster with a COVID-19 twist. An idea I had kicking around in my head for a few months.

Related post: ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant’—Emily Dickinson

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

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Say It Without Saying It

“We look to movies, TV shows, books, music, all the arts to express the things that are truly important us, or that we have trouble with in real life, and maybe . . . those are the same things. Kindness. Love your family (no matter how crazy). Enjoy your life. Those are the values that we have carried through from every show and movie that we laugh and cry with, right? And the great ones all have something else in common: While you’re laughing or crying or jumping at the story, the message they really want to get to you is coming through; the great ones say it without saying it.”
Everybody Loves Raymond creator & Emmy-winning producer Phil Rosenthal
You’re Lucky You’re Funny

Related posts:
Michael Arndt on Theme (“I read a lot of comedy screenplays and the disappointing thing—the reason most of them don’t work is because they’re not about anything.”
Writing Grace Notes (via James L. Brooks & Judd Apatow)

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

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“Basically I always think you can write five pages a day. And that’s not a brutal pace. You can do two and a half pages before lunch, two and a half pages after lunch. And so that would be 25 pages a week. Let’s say you don’t pull that off and you can do 20 pages a week, so in five or six weeks you can get a draft of a movie. And so if you set reasonable goals—from an outline, a good movie can be written in six weeks. And then it could be re-written every two or three weeks after that.”
—Writer/director Judd Apatow (The 40 Year-Old Virgin)
MasterClass, “Writing Process: First Draft”

P.S. Even if you have a day job, aiming for just 2 1/2 pages a day is a good goal and gets you a first draft in three months.

Related posts:
‘Stories are about people who are messed up.”—Judd Apatow
Comedies Should Work as Dramas—Judd Apatow
Writing Grace Notes (via James L. Brooks & Judd Apatow)

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

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“Perfect is the enemy of good.”
Proverb attributed to a variety of people

This is what the day after Christmas looks like for me:

Back in November I chunked out recording the audio version of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles, and today I finally got around to beginning the editing process. If you’re not familiar with audio editing, each of those lines represents an edit. Meaning I didn’t exactly nail this chapter in one take. But I was glad to finish the edit in just over three hours. I doubt I’ll make my self-imposed deadline of completing it by the end of the year, but finishing in early January looks doable. I’m told once the edit is done it takes several several weeks to get it live on Audible, so my guess is some time in March 2021.

One of the great things about reading something you’ve written is it gives you one more pass to make changes or corrections. Fix a typo here, add a little clarity there. Years ago I pointed out a typo in a magazine to an editor friend of mine and he said, “We have a small team and we aim to get it 95% right.” Meaning they knew they weren’t going to nail it perfectly, so they made there peace with having 5% errors. He said even book publishers, magazines, and newspapers with larger staffs don’t get it 100%. (And this was before the whole wave of layoffs hit the industry in 2009.)

That advice actually helped me quite a bit. And it’s given me a lot of grace when I read and listen to material by others and see or hear mistakes. It’s no secret perfectionism can paralyze you. So let me encourage you as you head into a new year to write or record good work. From there, you might be able to edit/re-write it to something great. (Even David Sedaris says he writes his essays at least 12 times before turning it into his editor.)

Since I was my own recording engineer back in November I missed that I said twice “Silence of the Lamb” instead of the correct title of the movie The Silence of the Lambs. But I’ve caught it and will fix it. Names are going to take a little more work. Names like Oscar Micheaux and Lajos Egri and the like will take a little more research to make sure I come up with an acceptable way of their names. But I take comfort in hearing Spike Lee say there are different ways people say Micheaux, and when Judd Apatow says “Lajos Egri” in his MasterClass he just laughs and says, “And there’s no way I pronounced that right.”

Scott W. Smith

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I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play, 
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Classic Christmas carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day based a 1863 poem by Harry Wadsworth Longfellow

Merry Christmas in 2020. One for the history books in so many ways. And one so tough in so many ways for so many people that its fitting I received a brass knuckles coffee mug as a Christmas present. I think it’s the most unique gift I’ve ever received. Yes, it’s a nod to my book—Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles. In case you never read it, I’ll pass last section of how I chose to end the book. Hoping it brings you some peace as we head into 2021 and more uncertainty.

One of the early readers of this book felt like it needed a benediction at the end. So following Bruce’s lead from Springsteen on Broadway where he recited The Lord’s Prayer, I’ve chosen not to reinvent the wheel. Here is a classic centuries old blessing from ancient scripture used in several faith traditions. (One that the family in A Quiet Place could have silently prayed in that scene where they joined hands at the dinner table in their time of great distress.)

The LORD bless thee, and keep thee:
The Lord make his face shone upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

Numbers 6: 24-26

—Scott W. Smith

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“I always like to come up with—I call it the big pop. And the big pop is, How is the novel going to open? ’Cause if you don’t get that right it doesn’t matter what you write after that because no one is going to bother finish reading it. So the big pop is really important.”
—Novelist & screenwriter David Baldacci (Absolute Power)
MasterClass, “Constructing Chapters”

Last week I finished novel The Long Lavender Look and it took the author John D. MacDonald all of two pages to reveal the big pop. Good ole Travis McGee (a character I think George Cooney was born to play on film) is driving at night a little too fast on a back road in Florida when a women darts in front of him and he misses hitting her by “maybe ten inches.” Unfortunately, he loses control of his car and ends up submerging his car in a swampy ditch.

But his life is spared by his passenger and the story is set in motion. So what worked for MacDonald back in 1970, works for David Baldacci today. (He has sold 130 million books.) And the big pop works in movies, too. I’ve heard it called a variety of things: catalyst, hook, and inciting incident.

Whatever its nature, the inciting incident is an event that focuses the future protagonist to take action. Think of the inciting incident as an electroshock. A death, an accident, an inheritance, and love at first sight are all classic inciting incidents. This plot point needs to be powerful enough to disrupt the future protagonist’s life and motivate her to take on the actions needed for the long second act.”
Yves Lavandier
Constructing a Story
Page 81

In my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles my first chapter is on conflict, and on page one of that first chapter I point out several big pops that happen that kick start those stories.

E.T. misses his space ride.

Juno discovers she’s pregnant.

A barracuda kills Nemo’s mother and siblings.

If those three things don’t occur there is no major disruption—no story to tell. No pop.

In the 1956 classic The Searchers, director John Ford and screenwriter Frank S. Nugent take their time time getting to the big pop. They setup a family reunion on the open plains of Texas (though shot in Monument Valley), just a few years after The Civil War ended. The wild west is still wild.

After introducing everyone in the family and showing life in balance, on page 30 of the screenplay a young girl is kidnapped and the rest of the film will be John Wayne’s character trying to rescue the girl. But, especially today, movies don’t usually have that luxury. (The Searchers was an epic tale made just as Tv was starting to put a dent on movie audiences.) Here’s a variety of genres over the years and what I consider their big pops.

A shark devours a girl on a late night swim in the ocean (Jaws)

A sports agent writes a controversial mission statement—then gets fired  (Jerry Maguire)

Jack wins a ticket on the Titanic boat (Titanic)

A special bike is stolen (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure)

A large family goes on vacation leaving a child behind (Home Alone)

The movie opens with a man face down in water (Sunset Blvd.)

The movie opens with a man face down in water (Bourne Identity)

A kid’s toy makes a noise in A Quiet Place

Works in T.V., too. That Breaking Bad opening is one unforgettable big pop:

The big pop sets up the story’s Major Dramatic Question. Will John Wayne save the girl? And that leads to the climax of the story and (ideally) your Insanely Great Ending.

P.S. William Goldman wrote the screenplay for Absolute Power (based on Baldacci’s novel) with Clint Eastwood in the lead role and directing.

Scott W. Smith

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I’m always on the lookout for fresh illustrations and analogies that apply to the writing process. Here’s one I just heard last week where author Salman Rushdie compared writing symphony music with how he used to write which was a very structured approach where the story was planned out, and how he writes now which is discovering the story as he writes.

“With a symphony everything is written down in full notation. There it is— the musician just interpret that. With jazz, of course, there’s a general sense of the shape, but there’s an enormous amount of room for improvisation and play in the middle of that.”
—Salman Rushdie
MasterClass, “Determine How to Tell Your Story”

One is not better than the other, they’re just different. My wife is a classically trained pianist and marvels at how jazz musicians improvise, and I imagine jazz musicians (who don’t read music) marvel at how someone plays reading sheet music.

One of the thing that I point out repeatedly in my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles is how different writers work. Some need to know how their story is going to end before they start, while others (like Stephen King) say they’ll get to the ending when they get to the end. Aaron Sorkin says what he needs to get out of the gate is strong intentions and obstacles, and Quentin Tarantino says he just needs to know how to get to half-way part before starting.

How various writers handle plot, character, theme, structure, etc. is all over the place. Each having their own strengths and weaknesses. And to tease out Rushdie’s musical analogy you’re not just limited to classical and jazz music. In filmmaking you’ll find the equivalent of rap, country, folk, ragtime, rock, metal, blues, soul, techno, gospel, hip hop, grunge, alternative—well, you get the point.

There is talent and mystery involved in the execution of the creative process and sometimes we mistakenly think if we just apply a technique from an accomplished writer it will transfer to us. It can be humorous how we search for the secret ingredient. David Mamet smirked once when pushed once about his writing process and said, “You know how Hemingway wrote standing up? I write sitting down.”

But find what works for you—and you mainly do that by writing story after story.

P.S. This is a little out of my area, but here is a short list of great composers and jazz musicians complied looking at a few sites online.

  • Classical Composers
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Johann Sebastian Bach
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Johannes Brahms
  • Richard Wagner
  • Claude Debussy
  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
  • Frédéric Chopin
  • Joseph Hayden
  • Antonio Vivaldi
  • Jazz Musicians
  • Miles Davis
  • Louis Armstrong
  • Duke Ellington
  • John Coltrane
  • Ella Fitzgerald
  • Charlie Parker
  • Billie Holiday
  • Thelonious Monk
  • Bill Evans
  • Oscar Peterson

Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I started a massive project to organize my old photos. A couple decades of slides and negative film before I started shooting digitally in 2006. The first shot was taken at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. It’s a quintessential backlot location as you can see the Hollywood sign in the background. I was 25 years old and worked for a production company in Burbank.

Last year I wrote a post about seeing Once Upon a Time in …Hollywood nine times while it was in theaters. One of the reasons I gave for seeing it so many times was that I didn’t know if I’d ever have that experience again. To see a well-done, big budget, non-superhero movie, that had an extended run in theaters. Little did I know that a global pandemic was heading our way and that in 2020 I wouldn’t even go to the movie theaters nine times total.

The second shot was a few years earlier during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I stopped to look at a guy doing face painting and this guy leaned over to me and said one of the most original lines I’d ever heard. He said (in a voice like Mae West), “If you had that done you’d look like a Corvette Stingray.” A few minutes later I had a fleur-de-lis on the side of my face—but I’m not sure the sales pitch was 100% accurate. But as Jimmy Buffett sings, “We do it for the stories we can tell….”

That was part of a classic college weekend road trip. Left Miami on Friday and drove straight through to Slidell, Louisiana where we crashed in a KOA campground in a pup tent held up by a broken broom handle. Spent Saturday and Sunday day in New Orleans, and Sunday evening headed back in to Miami in time for a film editing class with Ralph Clemente Monday night. Ralph said he was going to give me an A just for showing up. (Read the post The Perfect Ending after Ralph passed in 2015 and his most accomplished student who won an Emmy for directing an episode of Games of Thrones.)

My biggest pure old Hollywood moment was in Burbank—just over the hill from the Hollywood sign—when I saw John Huston. I was just leaving a post-production house where I had some color timing done on a project and he was being pushed in on a wheelchair. (It was just months before he died in 1987.) I just stared in awe in the parking lot knowing that I was looking at the great director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and The Maltese Falcon. He looked like a Rolls-Royce.

P.S. Here’s my dream car as a kid. Oddly, I’ve never driven, or even ridden, in a Corvette.

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

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Moss Hart said the audience will give you all their attention in the play’s first fifteen minutes; but in the sixteenth minute they will decide whether to go on the journey you want them to take. The first fifteen minutes draws up the contract of your agreement with the audience. You can subvert it or play with it, but you must set up the premises for the evening. . . . I once gave a course at Yale on only the first fifteen minutes of a play. The Homecoming. The Cherry Orchard. What the Butler Saw. The information the audience receives in the opening movement, that musical statement, allows us to enter the world of the play.”
—Screenwriter & playwright John Guare (Pulitzer prize-nominated play Six Degrees of Separation)
Playwrights at Work

In the age of streaming content that contract with that audience is sometimes reduced to 15 seconds. There’s a certain investment of time and money going to the theater that’s not there at home watching Netflix. But from a screenwriting perspective, I think that 15 minutes is still a good barometer. Think of it as your contact with the reader.

“The last 15 minutes of any movie are the most important, but the first 15 pages of any screenplay are the most important just from the standpoint of getting the movie made. I’m talking to young writers now who want to get their foot in the door. They want their scripts made. If you have a kickass first 15 pages, a studio executive will forgive the crummy 110 pages that follow. It’ll need to be re-written. But those first 15 pages, if they really hook you—someone’s going to be interested.”
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

P.S. Guare wrote the screenplay of his Six Degrees of Separation play, and the film was released in 1994 starring Stockard Channing and Will Smith. He also wrote the screenplay Atlantic City which starred Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon. It received five Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Writing Written Directly for the Screen.

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

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Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

—Emily Dickinson poem # 1129 (Tell all the Truth but tell it slant)

The Emily Dickinson poem known as Tell all the Truth but tell it slant is one that an English professor could spend a whole class (semester?) discussing. What is meant by tell? What is meant my Truth? What is meant by slant? I watched one video where an undergraduate student likened it to someone telling her that an ugly blouse looked good on her. Soften the blow of the truth. But that is a lie and has nothing with the truth.

I think Dickinson is saying tell all the Truth, but just take the long way home. Otherwise the blinding Truth will be overwhelming. This pandemic that has wrecked havoc on the world and estimated to have caused over 1.6 million deaths (and counting) could have simply been because one person simply bit into a bat. Maybe. And maybe there was nothing China could have been done to stop the spread of the disease. Maybe. And maybe we couldn’t handle the truth.

Shakespeare would often give the “slant” to the fool—the court jester. The one who is actually clever and wise. Tell a joke, do some juggling, and then subversively drop the bomb. When the Fool in King Lear wants to say it’s backwards for the King to be bossed around by his daughter he says, “May not an ass know when the cart draws the horse.” (Knowing that a fool could be whipped or even executed for speaking the blunt truth, taking the circuitous route—the slant—is the safer way to make your point.)

In the Bible there is the story in 2 Samuel of Nathan telling King David a story about a rich man with many flocks and herds stealing a poor man’s only lamb for a meal. David is angered by what he hears and says, “As the Lord lives, surely the man who has done this deserves to die. And he must make restitution for the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.” Nathan tells David, “You are the man!” Nathan is referring to David not only having an affair with a married woman, but essentially setting up the woman’s husband to be killed in battle so he could marry her. Nathan came at the truth with a slant.

Movie characters all the time (as people do in real life) speak in “slant.” Because to tell the hard truth all the time would cause quite a few relationship problems. On the opposite end of Shakespeare and the Bible, I recall an episode of Gilligan’s Island (“Seer Gilligan” written by Elroy Schwartz) where seeds found on the island allow everyone the ability to know what the others are thinking. If my memory is correct, the mind-reading ability left everyone mad with each other. Not enough slant in their thinking.

Seer Gilligan script

Perhaps Mary Poppins’ said it best; “It’s very clear to see that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” May you all “dazzle gradually” in your writing today.

P.S. Every once in a while I read or hear someone say something to the effect of— all of these screenwriting blogs and podcasts say basically the same thing. Maybe. But I’d asked them to point me to another blog/podcast that mixes these elements together: an Emily Dickinson poem, a global pandemic, Shakespeare, the Bible, Gilligan’s Island and Mary Poppins.

Related post: The Shocking Truth

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

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