Archive for January, 2021

“I’m Albert Brooks, and I’m speaking to you on behalf of the Famous School for Comedians, located on twenty-two gorgeous acres near Arlington National Park. How many times have you gotten nice laughs at a party, had a friend turn to you and say, ‘You know something. [your name here], that was pretty funny. You should think about being a comedian.’ Well, your friend was right!”
—Albert Brooks

When Jerry Seinfeld was interviewed on The Tim Ferriss Podcast he talked about reading an article in Esquire magazine called Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians. That article was originally published in 1971 putting Seinfeld around 16-years-old when he read it. The funny thing is Seinfeld didn’t realize that the article was a spoof. There not only wasn’t a famous school for comedians, there wasn’t one at all.

I found this website that has the entire article online (without a login). The school lists an advisory faculty, a curriculum, and a comedy talent test. (A warning on that test: It’s 1971 humor so if you’re younger than Jerry Seinfeld, you’ll be offended at least once.)

This was well before the internet or even ubiquitous 24-hour cable TV. Back when people sat around and listened to records of comedians, and maybe caught them on the The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. So give Seinfeld a pass for not getting the joke right away.

What’s important is 16-year-old Jerry Seinfeld already had his antenna tuned toward being a comedian. He graduated from Queens College, rose through the ranks performing stand-up in New York City, then doing the same thing in Los Angeles, before his first appearance on Carson just before his 28th birthday.

Seven years later everyone was watching Seinfeld—which they’re still doing long after the show’s nine season run. And partially explains—despite never having attended Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians— why Jerry Seinfeld is worth close to an estimated one billion dollars today.

In 2020, he published the New York Times Bestseller Is This Anything? That (and his documentary Comedian) are as close as you’ll get to a “Jerry Seinfeld’s School for Comedians.” But we’ll take a look at his process this week—one that he says he hasn’t veered from since he started doing stand-up.

P.S. A massive difference between 1971 and 2021 is a 16-year-old comedian today can have his or her own YouTube following. They’re cranking out content and getting immediate feedback. (Albeit some of it is brutal feedback, but that’s how you develop thick skin.) But in some ways YouTube and other social media outlets are vaudeville, comedy clubs, and an opportunity to break open your career with a spot on Carson all rolled into one. With a whole talent pyramid that’s always prevalent.

Related posts:
Jerry Seinfeld & Marc Maron on the Essential Element of Comedy
What Changed Jerry Seinfeld’s Life
Jerry Seinfeld (Part 1) On getting his first laugh around age eight.
Jerry Seinfeld (Part 2) On the serious aspect of comedy.

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

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“In her long and extraordinary career, Cicely Tyson has not only succeeded as an actor, she has shaped the course of history.”
–President Barack Obama, 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony

One of the problems of watching film and TV clips on YouTube is they can make what was originally profound and make it melodramatic. It’s almost impossible to watch the scene below from The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman feel the gravitas it had when it first aired on TV in 1974.

Actress Cicley Tyson won not one, but two Emmy Awards for her role as girl born on a slave plantation and follows her into old age—a very old age. Based on Ernest Gaines’ novel of the same name, it was one of the first African-American centered made-for- TV movies produced.

The screenplay by Tracy Keenan Wynn starts in 1962 on Jane Pittman’s 110th birthday. When she’s asked to go into town the next day to show support to a young black girl who is going to drink from a white water fountain Miss Jane says she’s going to wait for a sign from God. From there a reporter from New York shows up to write her story for a magazine article. The movie goes back and forth between the past and the present to tell her sweeping life story from slavery to the beginning of the Civil Rights.

The viewing audience in 1974 was only 10 years removed from the passing of The Civil Right Act. Only six years from Martin Luther King Jr. being shot and killed in Memphis. The scars of segregation were fresh. My own high school creative writer was one of the first black students to graduate from Seminole High School in 1969. One of the venues where the school wanted to have their prom was turned down because the school had integrated.

So the major dramatic question set up in that opening scene—will elderly Miss Jane Pittman show up as an act of solidarity as a young black girl drinks from a water foundation and risk being arrested—is answered at the end of the movie.

Cicley Tyson died yesterday at age 96.

P.S. For those of you thinking things haven’t changed that much, keep in mind the words of Martin Luther King Jr. that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I was raised in Central Florida starting about the year The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman ends and I never saw a black only or white only water fountain. May we all keep working toward a more perfect union. The release of Hamilton on Disney+ in 2020 is a great example of how opportunities have evolved for multiracial talent.

Here’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in entirety.

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

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“I’m having an amazing life—and it isn’t over yet.”
—Cloris Leachman (how she started her 1972 Oscar acceptance speech)

Actress Cloris Leachman was a Hollywood icon with Iowa roots. Long before she picked up an Oscar Award, a bunch of Emmys, and a whole new fan base as an 82-year-old on Dancing with the Stars, Leachman had a humbler start when born in Des Moines in 1926. She died yesterday at age 94.

Her father and a cousin started Leachman Lumber Company in Des Moines which is celebrating 100 years of business this year. She began playing the piano and performing in plays as a youth in Iowa on her way to greater success in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles. In 2006, Drake University in Des Moines awarded her with an honorary doctorate in fine arts.

If Leachman had of just been an extra in the following plays, Tv shows, and movies her career would have been remarkable.

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (the original Broadway show)
Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone
The Last Picture Show
Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein
The Muppet Movie
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Malcolm in the Middle

Of course, she wasn’t just an extra but an acclaimed actress whose career spanned an unbelievable nine decades. Along the way she picked up eight Primetime Emmy Awards which is a record she shares with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (It’s worth noting that both went to Northwestern University. And because it’s an expensive school it’s also worth noting that Leachman received a scholarship to attend the drama program.)

Here’s her Oscar acceptance speech for The Last Picture Show where she gave shout-outs to both her first piano teacher and her dancing teacher in Des Moines, her father Buck “who paid the bills,” and her mother whose “imagination and funny sense of humor” all which lead to her success.

Dream big, start small.

And here’s her performance from a script Peter Bogdanovich and Larry McMurty (based on McMurty’s book The Last Picture Show) that led to her Oscar.

P.S. Leachman’s comment at the Oscar’s about her father paying the bills got extended applause. I imagine because in 1972 they had a deeper understanding of what that meant. Leachman was three years old when the stock market crashed in 1929 meaning from that point through her teen years was lived in the economic hard times of The Great Depression and World War II. AP News reported that since Leachman’s family ”could not afford a piano, she practiced on a cardboard drawing of the keys.”

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

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Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A day to “honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.”

Back in 1998 I was cameraman for two interviews with Holocaust survivors for what was then called the Survivors of Shoah Visual Arts Foundation. After founder and chairman Steven Spielberg directed Schindler’s List he realized there were thousands of untold stories of Holocaust Survivors and he set out to capture as many stories as he could on video before that generation passed away. (Now known an the USC Shoah Foundation —The Institue for Visual History and Education.)

Wikipedia says that between 1994-1999 the foundation collected over 50,000 interviews. May 19, 1998 definitely goes down as one of the most memorable days of my production career. There are two distinct stories I remember from that day.

The first was a survivor whose job in the concentration camp was to go around in the morning and pick up the bodies of people who had died the pervious night. And the second was a survivor who despite all of the horrors he’d seen, the worst memory he had (from Auschwitz I believe) was when he fought with his father over a potato. They got separated at some point and he never saw his mother or father again. It haunted him into old age.

You hear stories like that and it forever changes your perspective on human tragedy and hardships.

Today marks the anniversary of the liberation in 1945 of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp. Some day I hope to visit that memorial and museum in Poland.

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

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“And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness and, above all else, unwavering loyalty. ”
—John Grogan (on his dog Marley)
Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog

Lots of tears were shed last week as we had to say goodbye to our dog. Ginger came into our lives as a 9-year-old rescue dog, so we knew we wouldn’t have her a long time. But it was a great five year run. The world is now a safer place for squirrels. (Not that she ever caught one.)

Ginger was just as sweet as this photo suggests

So that’s why I missed my own 13th blogging anniversary a few days ago. (It was on January 22, 2008 when I posted Life Beyond Hollywood.) This is one massive time of transition in the world. Makes it hard to focus on writing a screenwriting blog.

Just think of all the changes that have happened in the last month or so in this country: the COVID-19 vaccine began being administered, deaths by the Coronavirus in the U.S. surpassed the 400,000 mark, there was a riot at the United States Capital, Donald Trump (while sill president) was banned from Facebook and Twitter, there was the inauguration of President Joe Biden and VP Kamala Harris, and news of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian splitting up is just hitting the news.

At least Tom Brady is back in the Super Bowl (for his 10th time—four times as Super Bowl MVP) as is Patrick Mahomes (last year’s Super Bowl MVP) so there’s a little consistency to hold on to until the first week of February.

But times of transition have long been a favorite weapon of screenwriters and filmmakers. Why? Conflict of course. (The very first chapter in my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles.) The last two movies I watched (One Night in Miami and News of the World) are set in times of transition. One in 1964 just before the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, and the other in 1870—in a world in transition after The Civil War.

As I glance over my shoulder at my DVDs and Blu-Rays, and think of some of my favorite films these jump out as times of transitions.

Winter’s Bone
Stand by Me
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

The Last Picture Show
Kramer vs. Kramer

American Graffiti
The Civil War, A Film By Ken Burns (All of Ken Burns’ films major in times of transition)
The Shawshank Redemption
Hoop Dreams
On The Waterfront
Tender Mercies
Toy Story 3

How about the AFI list of top 100 movies? It’s full of movies about times of transition.
Citizen Kane
The Godfather
Gone with the Wind
Lawrence of Arabia
The Searchers
Star Wars
Sunset Blvd.

The Last Picture Show
The Graduate
On the Waterfront
The Grapes of Wrath

Some times of transition times are characters in transition (graduating from high school or college), getting pregnant, marriage, divorce, career change, and escaping prison. But a double punch is when characters are in transition in a time period of transition. That could be war (Saving Private Ryan), end of an era (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), The Great Depression (It’s a Wonderful Life), culture shift (All in the Family/ The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and racism (Do the Right Thing).

World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945 and was one of greatest times of transition in the history of the world. You could put together a world class film festival featuring films that take places in that six year window. Add to some of those listed above; Schindler’s List, Sophie’s Choice, Patton, Stalag 17, Das Boot, Band of Brothers, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, Enemy at the Gates, Empire of the Sun, and Letters from Iwo Jima.

If you’re deciding which script to write next—pick the one that takes place in a time of transition. Ideally for your protagonist and the culture they live in.

When my wife and I came home to an empty home last Thursday it was oddly quiet. For the better part of 20 years we’ve been greeted by one dog or another eager to see us. I’m sure iwe’ll get another dog at some point, but it may be a while.

In the meantime, I’m going to get over this funky season by dipping back into some of my past 3,000 posts and find a way to use them to get back to blogging on a daily basis.

P.S. Don’t know if you’re into audio books (and I’m slowly still editing mine), my current favorite audio book is This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Pachett and read by the author. Tucked inside that collection of stories and essays is a chapter on writing called The Getaway Car. Great stuff. (And an Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad to boot.)

Scott W. Smith

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As a fitting follow-up to my last post about Jackie Robinson, I learned that baseball great Hank Aaron died today. My first thought was being a 12-year-old baseball fanatic when Aaron was chasing Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. I wrote to Aaron via the Atlanta Braves organization requesting an autograph— and I got one! (Pictured below with the Sports Illustrated I kept after he surpassed Ruth.)

In the years that followed, I learned that life didn’t always go so smoothly. (Request/ request granted.) But getting that autograph in the mail was one fine day in the sun from my youth. And as I got older and read about the racism (and death threats) that Aaron endured while chasing Ruth, the more my admiration for him grew. To play professional sports at any level for any amount of time is a giant feat. But to play Major League baseball for 23 years as Aaron did, at the level he did—with the extra pressure that he faced—is phenomenal. Thanks for the memories Hammerin’ Hank.

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

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Jackie Robinson made my success possible. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did.”
—Martin Luther King Jr.
(King was a student at Moorehouse College in 1947 when Robinson became the first black player to play Major League Baseball)

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”
—Hall of Fame baseball player Jackie Robinson

To learn more about Jackie Robinson read his autobiography I Never Had it Made and check out the documentary Jackie Robinson by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon. Then there’s the movie 42 starring Chadwick Boseman as Robinson.

P.S. The following scene from Spike Lee’s unproduced script Jackie Robinson takes place at Sanford Memorial Stadium. A stadium I played many games as a high school baseball player. It’s where Hall of Fame baseball player Tim Raines played his high school games. And it’s also just a few miles from where Trayvon Martin was killed. Gives that scene a little more punch doesn’t it?

Related posts:
Martin Luther King Jr. and Writing Strong-Willed Characters
“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream”
Marlon Brando & Johnny Carson After the Death of Martin Luther King Jr.
Chadwick Boseman, Jackie Robinson, and the Struggle for a More Perfect Union
Spike Lee on Why You Have To Make Your Own Movies
Filmmaking in New Hampshire (Ken Burns Style)

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

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“Our stories, our books, our films are how we cope with the random trauma-inducing chaos of life as it plays out.”
—Musician Bruce Springsteen

“I wrote to explain my own life to myself, stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself.”
—Novelist Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides)

I’ll continue my run of James Bond posts, but thought I’d take a break to show a stack of notes I recently went through. It’s what my posts look like before they hit this blog. Just note after note scribbled here and there when I’m listening to a podcast in the car or on a walk.

About the only thing I can make out from my scrawl is this David Mamet quote, “There is no such thing as character. Character doesn’t exist.” (Somehow notes like these have fueled over 3,000 posts in the past 13 years.)

On top of hundreds of handwritten notes there are thousands of similar notes in my Notes app on my cell phone. Today I heard writer/director Paul Greengrass talking on the radio about his new film News of the World and when asked if his creative process is a common method said, “I don’t know how other filmmakers do it.” So I just voice recorded that sentence into Notes. It was the only direct quote that I captured from the interview.

One of the things I’ve tried to do over the years is to show how a diverse group of people work in different ways to accomplish the same goal. When I last counted I’d quoted over 700 writers, filmmakers, and film industry leaders. I’ve consumed plenty of interviews, books, and podcast featuring writers who explain their process. It’s what works for them, but may not be helpful for you.

For instance, more than one writer has said it’s a mistake to start writing from theme. Yet, would they change their mind if they knew that was exactly how Rod Serling wrote? That may not be how they work, but it worked out okay for the prolific Twilight Zone creator.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a story line or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
—Rod Serling

Anyway, I’m always on the hunt for a fresh perspective to the creative process. I think all writing is organized chaos, and playwright and screenwriter Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) said something to that effect.

“The very impulse to write springs from an inner chaos, a crying for order, for meaning and that meaning must be discovered in the process of writing or the work lies dead as it is finished.”
—Arthur Miller interview with Chrisitan-Albrecht Gollub
Conversations with Arthur Miller, Page 287

“I begin in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and experiences. Even now I do not consider myself a writer, in the ordinary sense of the word.
—Novelist Henry Miller
 Reflections on Writing

There’s no shortage of chaos in the world right now. But as I think back on history—and the history of movies—chaos is having a long run. And the best writers help us make sense of the world we live in. When you organize the right words in the right order (as Tom Stoppard wrote) “you might nudge the world a little.”

Here’s the trailer from News of the World (screenplay by Greengrass and Luke Davies, from the novel by Paulette Jiles) where Tom Hanks’ character appears to seek to bring order out of chaos.

P.S. I’ve yet to read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, but now may be a good time. Bill Gates said the 2011 book was “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read.”

P.P.S. The first 30 seconds of this clip is kinda what my wife looks like when she walks into my home office—not that I have A Beautiful Mind.

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

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“There are strong incidents in [Casino Royale] which are all based on fact. I extracted them from my wartime memories of the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty, dolled them up, attached a hero, a villain and a heroine, and there was the book.”
—Ian Fleming

First Edition of Casino Royale (1953)

Last week I picked up a used copy of Ian Fleming’s original James Bond story published in 1953. Casino Royale is only 137 pages, which I’d guess comes in around 50,000 words. He wrote the first draft in two months while on holiday in Jamaica. In my quest to discover why James Bond has had such a long shelf life I came across this article attributed to Fleming (but I have yet to see the original source).

[T]the point I wish to make is that if you decide to become a professional writer, you must, broadly speaking, decide whether you wish to write for fame, for pleasure or for money. I write, unashamedly, for pleasure and money.

I also feel that, while thrillers may not be Literature with a capital L, it is possible to write what I can best describe as ‘Thrillers designed to be read as literature,’ the practitioners of which have included such as Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler and Graham Greene. I see nothing shameful in aiming as high as these.

All right then, so we have decided to write for money and to aim at certain standards in our writing. These standards will include an unmannered prose style, unexceptional grammar and a certain integrity in our narrative.

But these qualities will not make a best seller. There is only one recipe for a best seller and it is a very simple one. You have to get the reader to turn over the page.

If you look back on the best sellers you have read, you will find that they all have this quality. You simply have to turn over the page.
—Ian Fleming
How to Write a Thriller
Originally published in the May 1963 issue of Books and Bookmen
Via the LitHub website, Emily Temple, and Peter Morwood
(If anyone has info on the original 1963 article please send me a link.)

P.S. Did you know that first actor to play the James Bond was not Sean Connery—but an actor born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland? Back in 1954 Barry Nelson was Bond in the live tv version of Casino Royale (as part of the Climax! series). Antony Ellis and Charles Bennett wrote the Tv version that came in at 52 minutes. A comment on IMDB said the Tv rights were optioned for $1,000. That is believable since James Bond was unknown and Casino Royale just hit the bookstores in the United States a few months before the airing of the show. All involved probably thought it would help book sales.

Related posts:

‘What Happens Next?’—Mamet

Screenwriting Quote of the Day #76 (Leslie Dixon) She says her screenwriting book would be a flyer consisting of just seven words.

The four most important words that every storyteller wants to hear to know their story is working (according to Neil Gaiman)

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

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“It struck me that this brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon and yet very masculine name was just what I needed, and so a second James Bond was born.
—Ian Fleming on picking the name James Bond

In my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles I point out many instances of where some of the top screenwriters cribbed from others for storylines, characters, and themes. James Bond creator Ian Fleming was no different. Except where Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) says the secret is to steal a little here, and a little there so no one catches you, Fleming at least lifted the name James Bond in broad daylight—from a published writer no less.

James Bond (1900-1989) was an ornithologist from Philadelphia , Pennsylvania who just happened to be an expert on birds in the Caribbean. Fleming wrote his first Bond novel in Jamaica and was familiar with Bond’s writings.

Keep in mind that Fleming was in his 40s and working as a journalist when he began to write his first Bond novel. I’m not sure what his original aspirations were, but I doubted that he thought 68 years ago when Casino Royal was first published that his writings would become one of the most popular and produced characters in film history.

The second real life American inspiration on the fictitious British spy was Hoagy Carmichael (1899-1981). Carmichael was a singer, songwriter, and actor who was immensely popular in the 1930s when Fleming began working in naval intelligence at the start of World War II. Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana and actually graduated with a law degree from Indiana University, before his career in music took off.

His song Startdust (or Star Dust) came to him while he was a student at Indiana. With additional lyrics added later by Mitchell Parish, the song became an American standard recorded by many top artists; Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Willie Nelson, John Coltrane, Winton Marsalis, and Frank Sinatra. More recently the song was used in A Star is Born (2018).

In the video below, Carmichael is seated at the piano with another song playing (Georgia on My Mind) that he co-wrote with Stuart Gorell. Does he seem more like or Sean Connery, Roger Moore, or Daniel Craig? This is how Fleming described Bond in his first novel Casino Royale; “Bond reminds me rather of Hoagy Carmichael, but there is something cold and ruthless.”

Carmichael, Hoagy Carmichael

P.S. Carnichael won an Oscar for his song (with Johnny Mercer ) In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening featured in the 1951 film Here Comes the Groom.

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

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