Archive for April, 2021

“I was rejected from the Sundance labs maybe four times with Sound of Metal. . . . There wasn’t a lot of encouragement from anybody in the industry.”
—Writer/director Darius Marder (Sound of Metal)
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

The movie Sound of Metal picked up two Oscars last night for Best Sound and Best Achievement in Film Editing but fell short in four other categories including Best Original Screenplay. But today, I’m giving it the first-ever ”Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles” Award.

This doesn’t take anything away from recent Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner Emerald Fennell (Promising Young Women) or Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winners Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton (The Father), but Sound of Metal best embodies the essence of what I’ve written on this blog over the last 13 years and in my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles. (And this is something that I’ll give out in the future as I dig deeper in current and past films. Perhaps I’ll build a short book around them.)

Sound of Metal was written by Darius Marder and his brother Abraham Marder from a story originating with Darius and Derek Cianfrance. Sound of Metal is one of those movies I will revisit again and again. And it’s one of those movies where the story behind the story is equally amazing. Let‘s start by revisiting that quote that top of this post:

“I was rejected from the Sundance labs maybe four times with Sound of Metal. . . . There wasn’t a lot of encouragement from anybody in the industry.”
—Writer/director Darius Marder (Sound of Metal)

Filmmaking is a brutal business. And Darius is clear in various interviews that he wants you to know how hard it is so you won’t feel like you’re alone. And it hasn’t gotten any easier during a global pandemic. Conflict is not only a key part of your screenplay, but it’s with you in the writing and developing stage, in the financing stage, in the shooting and editing phase, and in the distribution phase. (Did I miss anything?)

The process of getting Sound of Metal written and produced was over a decade in the making. After the script was finally completed, financing fell through many times. Sometimes locations were secured, cast and crew in place, only to have it not happen.

”Nothing was easy.”
—Darius Marder on the process of getting Sound of Metal made

The Marder brothers wrote this on spec, meaning all those years of writing, they were not making a cent. In fact, Darius was self-funding the travel to meet with investors and actors over the years. He estimates they wrote 1,500-2,000 pages to get to the final script.

With funding finally in place, and only 12 days from shooting, the financing fell through once again. Lead actor Riz Ahmed had spent months learning to play the drums and learn American Sign Language (ASL) and turned down other work, in what looked like yet another bust in getting the film made. But angel investors came through on what Darius called a Hail Mary call to a couple he’d met in London.

They shot the film in 25 days with a budget in the $4 million range. It’s a remarkable achievement. And it’s important to point out that the movie’s success is rooted in failure. The seeds of the story were an unfinished hybrid narrative/documentary titled Metalhead about a drummer with an ear injury. When writer/director Derek Cianfrance knew he would never finish Metalhead he asked Darius to take over the project. That’s where Darius took parts of the doc and began making it its own story. He later said he wished he could start every project with that much front-end research.

Before I break down the film a little, let me say that this film feels authentic at its core. From the drummer Ruben’s obsessiveness, from Lou’s (Olivia Cooke) desire to get him help, and from the counselor Joe’s meeting Ruben head-on. I have known people with addictions who are skilled at conning everyone—including themselves. And I used to show produce conferences where I got to know people in the ASL community and loved their directness. (Less wasting of time/words beating around the bush.) It not surprising to learn that the actor who plays Joe, Paul Raci, knew ASL as his first language.

Now we move into spoiler territory. (Check out the Sound of Metal on Amazon Prime before reading what follows.) Here’s a breakdown based on the chapters of my book:

CONFLICT: Sound of Metal is full of conflict. Starting with the sledgehammer conflict of the drummer Ruben facing hearing loss and potentially not being able to do what he loves to do best. There is conflict with his girlfriend. When he goes to a center to learn ASL there is conflict with the counselor. There is conflict with himself and how he is going to deal with his life-changing circumstances.

CONCEPT: The logline on IMDB reads, “A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.”

CHARACTERS: The three main characters are so well developed that we could of followed any of them at various parts of the story. But they wisely keep it Ruben’s story. He is the classic protagonist at the end of his rope. A spotlight was put on his journey and the audience clearly understood this clarity.

CATALYST: Ruben starts losing his hearing around the 10-minute mark, after they established that he‘s good at what he does. Co-writer Abraham is, in fact, a musician who once had an illness in real life that prevented him from playing the instruments he loved. It adds to the authenticity of the movie.

CONSTRUCTION: Sound of Metal follows a solid three-act structure by design. Darius says he’s a “structure-holic.”

Act one—Ruben starts to lose his hearing. Seeks help and is told it will only get worse. He keeps drumming, and it gets worse. He has to step back from his music. And from his relationship with his girlfriend. The major dramatic question that isn’t answered until the last scene is, “What’s he going to do about his hearing loss?”

Act two—Going to a retreat-like place to learn how to cope with his deafness. He arrives there at the 27-minute mark. It doesn’t go well and first so he leaves. But he returns after reaching a breaking point. Joe mentors Ruben, and while Ruben has his dark moments, he appears to embrace the deaf community around the midpoint of the film. There’s a wonderful non-verbal scene at the halfway point where Ruben turns the metal of a slide into a drum as a youth listens with an ear on the slide.

Ruben’s dealing with not a handicap but a new reality. He flourishes so much that Joe offers him a job. But it’s clear Ruben is not ready to shed his old life. He checks the band’s website and sees his girlfriend performing on stage. He decides to sell everything he has to have an expensive Cochlear implant in hope of restoring his hearing. This eventually results in a lack of trust and leads Joe to ask Ruben to leave the deaf community immediately. (That turning point happens 88 minutes into the story.)

Act three—The implants are a disappointment to Ruben. It reminds me of the saying, “All disappointment comes from unmet expectations.” Ruben spends time in a cheap hotel until he can return to the audiologist hoping his hearing can be adjusted. He connects with his girlfriend in Paris and tries to pick up where they left off. He says they need to get back on the road performing, but it’s clear that’s not going to happen.

According to Darius, Sound of Metal borrows from Hitchcock’s Psycho in that you start out thinking you’re in one movie until you find out you’re in another one. You think it’s a story about deafness, but it turns out to be a story about addictions. That’s part of the architecture of the story.

CLIMAX and CONCLUSION—Ruben packs his things and leaves. He walks to a park bench and listens to the cacophony of sounds around him including a bells (another version of the sound of metal) before taking off his implants and watching the world in total silence. He appears to reach an epiphany. He’s found peace.

CATHARSIS—Ruben’s emotional journey is complete.

CONTROLLING IDEA—Though Ruben didn’t listen to Joe initially, the advice he was given earlier in the film was to find, “That still place. That’s the kingdom of God.” French philosopher Pascal wrote way back in the 1600s that, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” How often do we sit alone in a room…without a cell phone, tablet, or computer nearby? At least in American culture, contemplation is eclipsed by the selfie.

CHANGE—Ruben finds a quiet place at the end of the film. What Darius called “the journey of acceptance.” Ruben has been transformed.

CAREERS AND COWS—Darius was raised on a Buddhist goat farm. By his own admission he wasn’t a good student until a teacher turned him on to literature. He went on to work a variety of jobs including teaching middle school students, working as a personal chef, shooting wedding videos, before making the 2008 doc Loot. A film festival winner that came with a $50,000 cash prize and shown on HB0.

And, of course, after Sound of Metal finally got made it had to deal with a world essentially on hold due to COVID-19. Amazon Studios released it into theaters in November 2020, and on Amazon Prime the next month. But at least the Marder brothers got to see their movie in theaters near where they have roots in Massachusetts.

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

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“They say fifty per cent of the resturants in New York won’t reopen. Well, I think that’s certainly true also of the movie theatres.”
—Screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver)
The New Yorker, April 22, 2021

As I finished my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles toward the end of last year it was obvious that the film industry was in a major transition. Due to COVID-19 the majority of movie theaters were closed or operating on a very limited basis. The theatrical film model has endured The Great Depression, World War II, the rise and popularity of free and pay television, and the internet.

But the cultural landscape in 2021 has shifted so significantly that many people are debating the role of movie theaters in the near future. Writer/director Paul Schrader once said that there weren’t better filmmakers in the ’70s, but there were better audiences. Audiences that had a diet of serious dramas like The Godfather (1972), Chinatown (1974), and Taxi Driver (1976).

He recently weighed in on the damage done by movie theaters being closed during the pandemic.

”The two-hour format which was so ideally suited to theatrical, we’ve now trained young people for fifteen months not to see that as a primary way to have audiovisual entertainment. Now, how they come back or if they come back . . . they’re certainly not going to come back in the way they once were.
—Paul Schrader
The New Yorker interview with Richard Brody
April 22, 2021

Schrader sees movie theaters surviving in four ways:

  1. The Immersive Experience

2. Children’s movies

3. Date night movies (Horror, teen comedy)

4. Club Cinema (memberships where “Martini is the new popcorn”)

I didn’t not see a lot of movies in movie theaters until I turned 16 and got my driver’s license in 1977. That started my love affair with cinema. I was finally allowed to sit at the grown up table for the arts. There was no internet, VHS tapes, or cable TV in my world back then. Movies were king.

For a 16-year-old in 2021—not so much. But they do watch “Netflix” in the way that their great grandparents went to the “movies” (especially in small towns that only had one or two movies playing in a theater). Netflix is now a generic catch all term where you go to find something (narrative film, TV show, five-part series, documentary) you’ll like in the way that some scroll through dating app photos.

Chances are good that in the future movies like The Godfather, Chinatown, and Taxi Driver will still get made for streaming services as stand alone movies or as an extended/limited series.

The one film I’ve seen so far during this pandemic that I wished I’d seen in theaters is Sound of Metal. Writer/director Darius Marder (co-written with Abraham Marder) pulled off a dramatic film that could go toe to toe with the best films of the ’70s. We’ll see how it does against recent film in Sunday’s Oscar awards.

Maybe I should do a “Best Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles Award” to coincide with the Oscars each year.

Scott W. Smith

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“It just takes a long time for your skills to catch up with your ideas.”
—Advice to young filmmakers from writer/director Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Bulletproof Screenwriting Podcast with Alex Ferrari

Soon after I finished writing my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles, Alex Ferrari asked me to be on his Bulletproof Screenwriting podcast. That opportunity was a little intimidating since I’ve listen to that podcast and his Indie Film Hustle podcast for years. He’s had on a lot of big name filmmakers over the hundreds of podcasts he’s produced. Here are just few (check out his YouTube channel and website for a staggering amount of content:

It actually took me a few days to say yes to Alex because I hadn’t done an interview yet. But I thought it went well enough that it got me thinking about doing my own podcast. So thanks for the nudge Alex. And for all the great content you’ve been putting out for years.

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Let me start with the good news—starting a podcast is easy.

And can be done for free.

You can launch a podcast in an hour or two using only your cell phone. (Of course, the cell phone is an expense, but I’m going to assume if you’re interested in starting a podcast, that you already own a phone.) In its most basic form, these three steps are all you need to start:

  1. Record: I have an iPhone 7 plus I bought about 3 1/2 years ago that I can record on. I could add an external mic to get a better sound, but the phone itself will work. To improve recording quality, I could step into a closet to help deaden any echo and room noise (traffic, air-conditioning, people talking in another room, etc.) , and clothing is good for helping keep any echo from bouncing off the walls. Lastly, having the microphone about six inches from your mouth gives a good solid recording. You can test which sounds best.

2. Editing: Technically, you can edit on your phone. I can record to my voice memo app, trim off what I don’t want, and even continuing editing. Here’s an example of a 1-minute podcast you can probably do in about five minutes. Record a 10-second introduction. Trim that as needed. It may take a few takes to get comfortable doing this the first time. Write it out if that helps. Write out some bullet points to hit and record the 45-second body of your podcast. Don’t spend a lot of time worrying about getting this perfect. (This is about just showing how easy the process can be to start a podcast.) Just trim off the dead space at the beginning and end of your short talk.


3. Upload: This is the only slight wrinkle in the process. You need a place to host your podcast. Many sites offer free hosting by giving you limited space for a limited time. Here is an example for Podbean.

Even libsyn, one of the top names in podcast hosting, has a basic plan starting at $5 a month. Anchor by Spotify has a helpful article on staring a podcast. Do some research and familiarize yourself with what various companies do, and pick one. Like a lot of things, it doesn’t make much difference at the start. The important thing is to start. You can always upgrade and change hosting companies later to meet your needs as you grow. (I’ll share what group I use and why later in the post.)

So you sign up with a hosting group, and then you upload your podcast. Your first podcast will take a couple of days to a week to get approved by iTunes and whoever else you chose, but that is the barebones of podcasting. A nod to podcaster Ant McGinley for doing a seminar I saw where he walked a group of people from concept to iPad production in under an hour. He showed how easy podcasting can be. (Listen to the results on his Pod From Nothing podcast.)

Now here’s the bad news—podcasting is hard. That explains why there are close to 2 million podcasts out there, but less than a million are active. (Those that have posted a new episode in the last year.) As the saying goes—You can learn to play chess in an hour or two, but playing it well takes years. The podcasting drop-out rate is high.

One statics is most people post less than episodes before they quit podcasting. They call it “Podfade.” The reason is part unmet expectations and part that creating new content weekly or monthly is a grind. I’ve been doing this blog since 2008, and I enjoy the process. But it’s a grind.

And now I’m adding a podcast to the mix. Here is the how and why I launched my Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles podcast a couple of weeks ago with just a 2-minute trailer. My goal is to start releasing weekly short podcasts beginning May 5, 2021. So depending in when you’re reading this, you can see how all this played out.

Honestly, to get to the point of the original idea to just launching that trailer was years in the making. I’m not even sure how many, but I think the seed was planted back in 2012 when Adam Levenberg first suggested I start a podcast. I had just started listening to podcasts myself and had no idea where to start. And it just seemed like a lot of work. So I tucked it away.

In 2015, I began listening to podcasts regularly and starting a podcast intrigued me more. But life happens, and I was trying to finish a book based on my blog, so I didn’t really have the time or energy to tackle podcasting. But in 2020, I finally launched the Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles book and started thinking about podcasting more seriously. I signed up for the 2021 Podfest conference in Orlando with hopes of doing a deep dive into that world. But COVID-19 postponed that conference. But the founder, Chris Krimitsos, decided to do a Virtual Podfest, which I had access to because of my 2021 Podfest ticket.

One of the extended tracks I did was called “Zero to Launch,” and much of what I learned there I’ll pass along here. So while it took me years to get to this point, it might only take you a few weeks, a few days, or even a few hours to get up to speed with launching your podcast.

What follows is a little more advanced and a little more expensive than just recording to your iPhone. (No affiliate marketing or sponsorship to any of this.)

  1. Record: To record the audio version of my book (which will be released later this year when I finish editing it) I bought a Shure SM7b microphone, a Cloudlifter CLl-1 to boost mic signal , recorded to a Zoom H6 recorder. (I had an old stand, XLR cords, and a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones, so I didn’t need to purchase those.) But that is a solid pro recording setup that you can buy for under $1,000. With a bit of research, you could get a decent setup for about half that amount.

2. Editing: There are various free editing software out there for editing, but Audacity is the one I hear mentioned most commonly. Some podcast hosting sites now allow basic editing. On the pro side, the two common editing applications are Pro Tools and Adobe Audition. I use Audition. Costs vary. But if you’re a student, check to see what may be available for free through your school.

The more of background you have in production the quicker you will learn how to use this equipment. If the technical stuff overwhelms you you will have to find friends willing to help you out or pay others to do the work for you.

I come to podcasting with decades of production experience, an undergraduate degree in film, and a master’s degree in digital journalism, but I wouldn’t say any of this is easy if you’re doing it all by yourself. (Which I am.) And plenty of podcasters are coming at this with no college or production background. Grit, determination, and drive seem to be helpful traits.

Knowing what your podcast is about and either outlining or writing episodes is a large piece of the puzzle. In my case, I will be tapping into the more than 3,000 blog posts I have written over the years to provide the foundation for my podcasts. It is not unheard of for me to spend 2-3 hours writing a blog post. (This one took 4 hours.) Unless you’re the kind of person who can speak gold dust into a microphone, you’ll have to spend some time knowing what subject you’re going to cover. And if yours is an interview-based podcast, you’ll still have to spend time researching and forming questions.

Even if you use free software, you still to have access to a computer to do the editing. And probably an external hard drive and/or cloud storage as well. A time-honored tradition is “3-2-1.” Have three versions of your file, two with you and one off site. Backing up is crucial.

3. Upload: What you’ve recorded, edited, and exported your final episode, then it’s time to upload it to your hosting service. I chose Buzzsprout because it just seemed to be the most intuitive of the bunch. I liked the layout of their website, I liked their explanations of what was needed to use their services, and I just like theirname. They take care of all the RSS feed technical stuff that gets your podcast out in the world. And it seemed that whenever I was hunting for podcasting questions that there was a video on it by Buzzsprout or by someone who used Buzzsprout. Here’s a couple of samples from the YouTube channel Buzzsprout—Learn How to Podcast:

I originally signed up for the free version and then upgraded to a $12 a month plan. It took a couple of hours to walk through the process of adding all the information needed on my podcast. Then a couple of more hours to walk through the process of linking my podcast to iTunes, Spotify, and others.

Having graphics for your podcast is something you can do on your own if you have basic Photoshop skills. Canva is a place you can use for free or upgrade to a subscription to use templates to customize artwork. Since I used 99 Designs to refine the idea for my book cover, I went back to the same designer there to turn my book cover into a podcast cover.

I still have a lot to learn about analytics and marketing but that is podcasting 101.

I did purchase the domain name screenwritingwithbrassknuckles.com. I have not set up a full website which I plan to do using WordPress. That is moving into the 202 and 303 levels of podcasting, and I will fill these in as I go along the way.

But here’s a shortlist of what others are doing in the podcast world.

—YouTube. It doesn’t have to be you on camera. It can just be your audio file with a cover graphic. What this does is have another way for people to find you, and since YouTube is one of the top search engines, it is a valuable resource to tap into for just a little extra work.

—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok are social media platforms that offer ways to repurpose your podcast content. Some say limit yourself to 2-3 of these social media platforms so you don’t become overwhelmed. Experiment to find which works best for you and which you most liking working with.

—SEO: Search engine optimization. This is worth going to LinkedIn Learning to start wrapping your head around the importance of SEO.

—Affiliate marketing and sponsorship: I don’t make a penny from any of the above links. But those that understand affiliate marketing and sponsorship (and have a proven following) monetize links like that. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but that is how Joe Rogan and Bill Simmons pull in millions of dollars. Others might pull in thousands and some hundreds through each podcast they do. But it’s important to know that unless you’re already a proven name, you’re mostly likely going to start out with few listeners and zero sponsors. Marc Maron’s first sponsor gave him $15 of coffee per week to mention their coffee. File that under “Dream big, start small.” Some people start a podcast just to promote their own brand, books, or workshops. Some start a podcast just for the fun of it.

—Scheduling. Calendly is scheduling software that I have never used, but one I often hear mentioned as a way to keep track of interviews and planning when to record, edit, and release podcasts.

That’s a good start to How to Start a Podcast.

P.S. if you have a podcast and want to add to the list, drop a note in the comments or email me at info@scottwsmith.com.

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

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Here’s The Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles podcast. I say that not with trumpets blasting, but in a whisper.

Consider this the soft launch of the podcast rooted in my book of the same name. I still have a lot to learn about podcasting, but I’m out of the gate with a 2 minute trailer. You can subscribe on Spotify on iTunes—and soon on the many other places people subscribe to podcasts.

On May 5th I plan on releasing short episodes on a weekly basis. Like my blog, there’s no team of people here—just myself. So I’m going to try to keep this simple by aiming in the five to 10 minute range. And I’m not going to reinvent the wheel, but be tapping in to the more than 3,000 posts I’ve written on this blog.

My book is what I would consider the greatest of hits of advice curated over the years from screenwriters and filmmakers throughout film and television. But of the well over 1 million words I’ve written here since 2008, that 250 page book only represents about 70,000 words.

I have a lot of people to think for getting me to take the first baby step into the podcasting world, but I’ll save that list for my May launch. For now I’ll just think you— the readers of the Screenwriting from Iowa . . . and Other Unlikely Places blog—because that’s been the fuel that’s keep this going.

Blogs aren’t as popular as the were five or ten years ago, and I think the evolution of podcasts and YouTube channels are part of the reason. Add in COVID-19 to disrupt patterns in which people consume information and their lives in general. It became clear to me that it was time to explore creating some new kinds of content. Podcasting seemed like a natural first step.

If you’ve been thinking about starting you’re own podcast, I’ll lay out the steps I took to get here in my next post. One of great things about podcasting is the cost for entry is so much cheaper than the filmmaking world. Technically you could start a podcast for free just using your phone. But even using high end equipment will set you back less than a $1,000.

Podcasting is simple, but not easy. One one level it’s record, edit, and publish. Like learning to play chess. But to do it well—that’s were things get complicated. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History wasn’t built in a day, and WTF with Marc Maron wasn’t an overnight sensation. Both of those accomplished podcasters built on decades of experiences.

Most people don’t respect the heavy lifting behind the scenes which explains why half the podcasts out there are dormant (having not produced anything in the past year). The average episodes released before quitting is under 10. They call it podcast fade. But I think it probably should be filed under: “All disappointment comes from unmet expectations” 101.

I hope you and others join me on this new journey, but I’m going to keep my expectations realistic. I’m going to show up, punch the clock, and do the work. I’m committing to doing at least 100 episodes and then will review the time commitment. But I will say it’s pretty cool to see your newly launched podcast pop up on your podcast feed with the big dogs.

That’s a small victory I’ll cherish for a few moments. Then back to work.

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

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Note: I’ve been using most of my free time in the last two weeks trying to power through launching the podcast Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles. I still have a few things to wrap my head around, but look for an launch announcement tomorrow. (In fact, this post will probably find its way into episode 1.)

“The guy looked like a cross between Colonel Sanders and General Patton . . . .[Howard] Schnellenberger was as old-school as a pair of brass knuckles. He had learned football from some of the game’s biggest legends.”
—Bruce Feldman
‘Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment

This is the opening paragraph of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles:

“Get that f—ing walk-on off the field” is how my short-lived football career ended at the University of Miami back in 1981. I’d dislocated my shoulder during the previous play in practice and was hunched over frozen-like and favoring my twisted left arm. Dr. Kalbac popped my shoulder back in place. I had surgery put down my helmet for good, and picked up a camera.

I thought of that moment again after learning Howard Schnellenberger died at age 87 at the end of March. He wasn’t the coach that uttered those encouraging words to me, but he was the head coach back then. He was the architect who took a program that was almost disbanded in the ’70s and built it into the most dominant college football program of the ’80s and ’90s.

He won’t go down as the greatest coach in the history of football, but in my opinion he was the most influential coach for the fast-paced, high energy that college football is today. College football through the ’70s looked a lot like “three yards and a cloud of dust” that Woody Hayes made popular at Ohio State. Schnellenberger brought his prostyle passing offense to Miami and when mixed with the talents of Jim Kelly and Bernie Kosar created magic.

What a full life Howard Schnellenberger had. He was an All American football player at the University of Kentucky in the 1950s. He coached under Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama and recruited Joe Namath in the 1960s, In the 70’s he was an assistant coach with the 1972 champs that where not only Super Bowl champs but finished the season undefeated.

In the 1984 he won a national championship at the University of Miami. That Hurricane season and upset win of Nebraska in the Orange Bowl started what was known as the decade of dominance. ESPN doc This was well documented in the Bruce Feldman book Cane Mutiny: How the Miami Hurricanes Overturned the Football Establishment and Billy Corban & Alfred Spellman ESPN’s documentary The U.

In the ’90s he turned around the Univ. of Louisville football program, and helped start from scratch the football program at Florida Atlantic University. FAU played their first game in 2001 and in just seven years into the program were Sun Belt Conference champs capping what was for Schnellenberger six decades of football excellence.

I can only remember having one conversation I had with coach Schnellenberger, but a letter I got from him cemented my decision to go to school in Miami as a walk-on player. Still have that letter. (And his signature has a smudge because I wanted to know if it was a real signature.) I was looking for a major college that had a football program and a film program which in the ’80s was a pretty short list.

In high school I’d been an All-Conference and All County wide receiver, but when I got to Miami I realized that everyone was All State and some were All American. (Remember this was long before the internet that gave in-depth reports on every school. There was a certain amount of mystery involved. And it was a pre-Randy Moss era before some wide receivers were taller than linebackers.) Every step-up in the game from Pee Wee football through to professional football is a major jump.

I’ve said before I may of had the shortest career of any player to put on a Hurricane uniform for a game. (One JV game where I played exactly zero plays.) But a few days before I got injured I had my best practice running through plays before a JV game against Florida St. and teammate Stanley Shakespeare said, “Coach, you should start Scott— he catches everything.” Shakespeare went on to be the starting wide receiver on the ’83 National Championship team so I’ve always cherished that moment. Never underestimate the power of a few encouraging words.

One of the things I learned at Miami was to respect the talent pyramid. There are always just a few people at the top. Pick any field and you’ll find it’s true. As Robert De Niro is quoted as saying, “We’re all talented. Some are just more talented than others.“

Composers: Bach, Beethoven, Mozart

Tech: Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg

NBA shooting guards: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Duane Wade

Female Recording Artists: Madonna, Rihanna, Taylor Swift (Or is it Mariah Carey, Streisand, Whitney Houston? Janet Jackson, Olivia Newton-John, Aretha Franklin?)

Ranking talent isn’t an exact science. Hence, the endless G.O.A.T. debates these days. But as legendary football coach Bobby Bowden once said of one of his players, “He may not be in a class by himself, but whatever class he’s in it doesn’t take long to do a roll call.”

In my year at the UMiami film school, director David Nutter was the standout student. Since he went on to win three Primetime Emmys (Band of Brothers, Game of Thrones) I think he’d be at the top of the pyramid of all students in the history of that program. (Read the post The Perfect Ending.)

Of all the great athletes that have excelled at the University of Miami and went on to have a career in the NFL, you couldn’t even put a full 11 player team on the field of those who have reached the pinnacle of excellence—the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Here’s the entire list of nine players from the almost 100 year history of the Hurricane football program in Coral Gables, Florida:

Ted Hendricks
Michael Irvin
Edgerrin James
Jim Kelly
Cortez Kennedy
Ray Lewis
Jim Otto
Ed Reed
Warren Sapp

Those were the great ones who had long and distinguished careers. And even that small list has a pyramid.

One could do a Ph.D. thesis on Pareto principle or Price’s Law (dealing with the scarcity of a few to accomplish the most) from the talent that Miami harnessed from 1982—2002 when the school won five national championships. At Miami, Schnellenberger was a recruiting genius tapping into the unusually large talent pool in Central and South Florida that was traditionally drawn away by powerhouses in the Big Ten or SEC conferences. (Even today, the state of Florida produces the most players in the NFL.)

And Schnellenberger and his coaches could recruit outside the state as well. The 1982 team alone had three quarterbacks (Jim Kelly, Vinny Testaverde, and Bernie Kosar) who would go on to each be first round draft picks in the NFL. (Technically Kelly was recruited by former Hurricane head coach Lou Saban, but Kelly stayed because of Schnellenberger and credits him and QB coach Earl Morrall with preparing him for the NFL.)

Great talent is extremely rare. And it doesn’t last forever. To borrow a line from the movie Moneyball, ”We’re all told at some point in time that we can no longer play the children’s game.” Heisman Trophy winner Tim Teabow played his last NFL game in his mid-20s, Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice lasted until his early 40s, and even the great Tom Brady will retire—eventually (I think).

Schnellenberger never made it to the NFL as a player though he did play professional football in Canada for two seasons. Then he turned his attention toward coaching. But as an acting teacher in LA once told me when I was frustrated with my progress, “Just because you’re not Babe Ruth, doesn’t mean you can’t play baseball.” Schnellenberger found other ways to leave a legendary mark.

I would say that is the heart of this blog (and soon to be podcast Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles). You may not be the next Paddy Chayefsky, William Goldman, Spike Lee, Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, Diablo Cody or William Shakespeare—but you can learn from their writings, and the hundreds of other writers and filmmakers I quote to become the best writer, filmmaker, content creator you can become.

P.S. And couple quirky fun facts, Schnellenberger was born in tiny Saint Meinrad, Indiana (home to a Benedictine Monastery) and according to IMDB he played a referee in the Robert Altman directed MASH (1970).

P.P.S. Brass Knuckles are illegal in Florida and do have a violent connotation, which may be two reasons the University of Miami football team has “The Crib” touchdown rings. This is what Spike Lee writes in his Do The Right Thing screenplay: Mookie stares at the gold “brass knuckles” rings Radio Raheem wears on each hand. Spelled out across the rings are the words “LOVE” on the right hand and “HATE” on the left hand.

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

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Postcard #197 (Easter Sunday 2021)

I drove by this church Sunday afternoon on Easter Sunday 2021 and had to turn around and take a photo. It’s actually only a few miles from where director Jim Jarmusch and cinematographer Tom DiCillo shot part of the black and white Stranger Than Paradise.

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

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