Archive for October, 2021

You know how some people go to church only on Christmas and Easter (with an occasional wedding or funeral now and then)? That’s how I am with Major League Baseball these days—Spring Training and World Series (with an occasional All Star or playoff game now and then). And since tonight kicks off the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves playing Game 1 of 2021 World Series, I thought I’d sneak in one more baseball related post from Cooperstown, New York.

When I went to Cooperstown in June to see the National Baseball Hall of Fame, one of the fringe benefits was celebrating my birthday at The Otesage Resort Hotel. The historic resort opened on the southern end of Otsego Lake in 1909 and is a short stroll from the Hall of Fame. Since my wife isn’t into baseaball she enjoyed just sitting on the hotel’s expansive back deck while reading a book overlooking the lake.

Since I had dreamed of seeing Cooperstown since I was a kid playing Little League baseball, the lakefront hotel—and the beautiful sunrise and sunset—helped make it an extra special visit.

The Otesage Resort Hotel in Cooperstown, New York
What started in downtown Atlanta makes its way to downtown Cooperstown for a picture of Americana

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

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A few minutes ago I watched the Atlanta Braves defeat the LA Dodgers to advance to the 2021 World Series. This seems like a fitting time to share a 2015 video I just saw for the first time this week. It features professional baseball player Daniel Norris and his unusual off-season practice of living out of a classic VW bus despite making millions playing MLB player.

I’m not sure how much time Norris spends these days in his VW, but this past season he made $3.5 million playing for the Detroit Tigers. (This article still has him spending time in his VW.) Last month, the 2011 second round draft pick was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers. The short film Offseason was directed by Ben Moon, with Ben Sturgulewski as the director of photography, and edited by Dana Shaw.

If you dig that film check out Denali.

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

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“The world crushes your soul and the arts remind you that you have one.”
—Legendary actress/acting teacher Stella Adler

If I listed all the writers who started out as actors it would be an extensive list. But here’s a short list: Sofia Coppola, David Mamet, and Aaron Sorkin. And there are others that are still known for both acting and writing; Ben Affleck, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tina Frey, Jordan Peele, Sylvester Stallone, and Emma Thompson.

Even if you don’t have a desire to act—and just the idea terrifies some introverted writers—just taking one class for say three months is still an experience that can benefit you as a writer. Here’s what sitcom writer Sheldon Bull says new writers should do after taking a writing class or joining a writers group.

l“Take an acting class. Even if you have no aspirations to be an actor, an acting class can be invaluable to a writer. Even of you just audit the class and never do any acting yourself, it’s great to see how actors work and what their problems and challenges are. Observe how the acting teacher coaches the actors. That’s how a director on a sitcom works. You’ll see how the acting teacher gives notes to an actor. Learn how to give notes that improve the actor’s performance and build his confidence. As a sitcom writer, you are writing words that are intended to be spoken by the actors. The more you understand the acting process, the better your writing will be.”
—Producer/writer Sheldon Bull (M*A*S*H, Coach, Newhart)
Elephant Bucks, An Inside Guide to Writing for TV Sitcoms

That’s timeless advice that works across the board no matter the kind of writing you want to do. Some writers act out their lines while writing. Walt Disney was said to get so excited in story meetings that he would act out scenes as his ideas were flowing. (And you really haven’t had an acting class unless you and your classmates have all acted out being animals in a zoo.) A fringe benefit is just getting to know actors and how they’re wired. Understanding their doubts and insecurities. Their strengths and weaknesses. Plus having more actor friends help do table readings of your script is a good thing.

Robert Towne was in an acting class with Jack Nicholson when they were starting out and neither knew if they were going to have careers in Hollywood. Towne wrote the script for Chinatown with Nicholson in mind for the lead role. Nicholson was nominated for an Oscar and Towne won the Oscar for his screenplay.

If you can’t take a class in person, and interesting class to watch is the Nina Foch Course for Filmmakers and Actors. (Foch was a legendary in film, Tv, and theater actress.)

On Udemy right now, the course Directing the Actor a USC Course with Nina Foch is only $14.99 (No sponsorship.) That’s worth four hours of your time. Here’s what Alex Ferrari from Indie Film Hustle says about that course.

P.S. Two opportunities I missed while living in LA back in the ’80s. Shelly Winter’s was teaching an acting class. I was in my early 20s and only knew her then from The Poseidon Adventure, but later became aware of her two Oscars in A Patch of Blue and The Diary of Anne Frank. And my favorite Winter’s film is A Place in the Sun. I would have loved to watch her teach. And Stella Adler had long been based in New York, but opened a studio in LA around 1985 and was teaching a class that somehow involved William Hurt. I could audit the class for $360, but just couldn’t part with that money at the time. If ever those kinds of things come your way—jump at the opportunity. When I lived in Iowa, I once drove 3 hours each way to hear filmmaker David Lynch speak for a couple of hours. No regrets there.

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

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“Never let the fear of striking out get in your way.”
—Babe Ruth

While I was in film school and a couple of years after graduating, I took acting classes. They weren’t that different from the ones Michael Douglas leads in the Netflix show The Kominsky Method.

,I was told that every writer, director, and filmmaker should at least know what it’s like to walk in an actor’s shoes. So I took sensory classes, cold reading, and scene study classes. I worked with Arthur Mendoza doing scenes from Chekhov’s The Seagull and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (“I have tricks up my sleeves…”), studied at the Van Mar Academy, Estelle Harman’s Actors Workshop, and at Tracy Roberts Actors Studio. I learned something from all of them.

I even learned from a couple of places I didn’t study. I cold called Jeff Corey because I knew that Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne had studied with him. I told him I was interested in checking out his classes to see if I wanted to study with him. He firmly told me that first he was in Malibu and that was too from my apartment in Burbank, and secondly that I wasn’t the one doing the qualifying. Next.

Another day I dropped into what is now called The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute on Santa Monica Blvd. A lady there told me that unless I wanted to be an actor more than anything, then don’t come there to study. Because she said, it’s too hard to make it as an actor, and too hard to stay if you do make it. That the only thing that keeps you going as an actor was that when your feet hit the ground in the morning—all you want to be is an actor. That wasn’t me, so I moved on.

Tracy Roberts was where I spent the most time. She had been part of the original Actor’s Studio back in New York in the ’50s and racked up film and Tv credits through the ’70s before turning to teaching. She was the first one to turn me on to the work of Clifford Odets and liked a short story I wrote enough to give me a scholarship to a dramatic writing class they were doing at her studio.

And it was at her workshop that I got some of the best advice of my life. And while it was given in the context of acting, you can apply it to just about any area of life. But this is where my memory is a little fuzzy, and I can’t remember exactly who told it to me. But I think it was Howard Fine. Recently, I came across a sheet from a scene study class I did with Fine, who I think was teaching with Roberts’ studio back in the ’80s.

Fine now runs the Howard Fine Acting Studio in LA and has a who’s who list of actors that have worked with him. (Brad Pitt, Gal Gadot, Jered Leto, Dwayne Johnson, Salma Hayek, Kerry Washington, and Chris Pine.) I’m not 100% sure, but I think he’s the one that gave me the great advice below.

After class one night, I was discouraged about how I’d done. I think I told him I had a sports background and liked that at the end of a game you knew how you’d done. I sensed I wasn’t going to be the next great thing. Fine said, “Just because you’re not Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you can’t play the game.” That was a revelation.

For those of you unfamiliar with the analogy, Babe Ruth was arguably the greatest baseball player ever. When I visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY this summer, I learned even more what an iconic player Ruth was in his day. Even when he wasn’t playing a game, he caused a stir when he just visited a town. He wasn’t your average a baseball star, he was a rock star (long before there were rock stars).

There are layers of talent in every field. In screenwriting terms, if your goal is to be the next Paddy Chayefsky, William Goldman, or Aaron Sorkin you just might fall short. But if you do, that doesn’t mean you can’t play the game. That’s also true at every part of the entertainment and content creation industry.

So be encouraged— there are more creative opportunities in the world than ever before. There are even more ways to make a living producing, directing, writing, and editing outside of Hollywood than inside it. So when you get down just remember, “Just because you’re not Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you can’t play the game.” And Ruth’s own story from a troubled youth to baseball star found its way to the big screen in The Babe Ruth Story.

P.S. I did a little digging and did read an interview where Howard Fine said he started teaching at Tracy Roberts Actors Studio in 1985 so I at least got that part right. I would have been one of his first students in LA and the chances are slim that he’d remember me, but he might recall giving that Babe Ruth advice. I’m sure that advice comforted many an actor, because there was only one Babe Ruth–just like there was only one Marlon Brando.

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

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“The [MLB] draft has never been anything but a f—ing crapshoot. We take fifty guys and we celebrate if two of them make it. In what business is two for fifty a success? If you did that in the stock market, you’d go broke.”
—Billy Beane as quoted in Moneyball by Michael Lewis

“Rules are what makes art beautiful. Rules are what makes sports beautiful.”
—Aaron Sorkin

It’s Major League Baseball playoff time, so I’m going to use a little baseball inspiration to jump start getting back into blogging on a regular basis starting today.

Many years ago I was on a softball team when one night I saw the single best display of talent I’d ever seen in a softball player before or since. This guy hit three home runs batting right handed, then in his last at bat switched to hitting left handed and hit another home run. Like a mystical character he only played one game and I never saw him again. And now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever saw in professional or amateur level baseball player display such a dominant display of power.

But here’s the thing—he didn’t play professional baseball. I heard he peaked playing baseball at the University of Miami. (UM baseball teams have made 25 College World Series appearances, winning national titles four times.) Talent is funny that way. One can be at the pinnacle of success on one level and then be a bust at the next level. (Which explains why so many Heisman Trophy winners in college football have limited success in the NFL.)

The book and movie Moneyball explore the theme of how professional scouts and teams have a so-so record when it comes to knowing which athlete is going to be a star. (The first chapter of that book is titled “The Curse of Talent.”) That’s true in professional football as well—which explains why the most winning Super Bowl QB in history wasn’t drafted until the 6th round in 2000. Looking back, it’s bewildering to think that 198 players were picked ahead of Tom Brady.

But talent is tricky. And it’s funny.

Think back to Aaron Sorkin working odd jobs out of college (bartender, limo driver, singing telegrams) and being an actor in a traveling theater group doing plays for children.

“When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I traveled the South with a touring children’s theater company called The Traveling Playhouse. When I say the South, we weren’t playing in Atlanta, we were playing Jasper, Alabama. We’d do six or seven shows in elementary school gymnasiums at about ten o’clock in the morning, then pile into a station wagon, and a van carrying the costumes and sets. We did The Wizard of OzRip Van Winkle, and Greensleeves. We were paid thirty dollars a performance.”
Aaron Sorkin
Zen and the Art of Screenwriting
Interview with William Froug
Page 31

Would you have picked that guy on your team in 1983—back when he hadn’t even tried writing. Who knew he was going to be the Tom Brady of contemporary dramatic writers? He’s excelled in theater (A Few Good Men), in TV (The West Wing), and in features (The Social Network). And, like Brady, he’s still in winning form. Sorkin wrote and directed the upcoming film Being the Richardos, which Lucille Ball’s daughter, Desi Arnaz, says is “friggin’ amazing.”

Here’s a few takeaways from Sorkin’s career.

  1. He wanted to be an actor but failed, so he pivoted to becoming one of the greatest living drama writers today.
  2. I believe “Swing with your strength” is a phrase borrowed from the world of baseball. Pete Rose was a singles hitter so he just did that and accrued more hits that anyone in MLB. Sorkin’s strength is writing snappy and memorable dialogue. Rapid banter that has a winning tradition way back to vaudeville, through I Love Lucy, right up to today’s sitcoms. While film is a visual medium, and much emphasis is made on show don’t tell, Sorkin still excels in the strength of his words.
  3. He stays in his lane of writing drama. Usually drama in the workplace. You don’t see him writing super hero movies or family sitcoms. Four of his stories have been military/government related, and four of his stories revolve around TV production, so even his workplace interests are limited.

While there is God given talent, I believe that whatever talent you have can be sharpened over time. (Heck, even Tom Brady was once the 7th string quarterback his freshman year at the University of Michigan.) So here are several Sorkin-related posts from over the years that I hope you on your own writing journey. I’ll start with one of my favorites where he talks about the need to have “intentions and obstacles” in place before he stars writing. (That concept made it into my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles.)

Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles

Screenwriting vs. Finger Painting (Aaron Sorkin on the Rules of Art)

Aaron Sorkin on ‘90% of the Battle’ in Screenwriting

Aaron Sorkin on Launching a Screenwriting Career* (*Results may vary)

Screenwriter Support with Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin on ‘Steve Jobs’ and Screenwriting vs. Journalism

Screenwriting Quote #197 Aaron Sorkin)

Dialogue as Music

Aaron Sorkin in Jasper, Alabama

The West Wing, BMWs & Iowa

Aaron Sorkin on Good vs. Great

Professor Aaron Sorkin

Sorkin on Revealing Character

Aaron Sorkin on Failure

Movie Cloning (Aaron Sorkin)

Sorkin’s Emotional Drive

And I’ll end this post with another dramatic writer who has also excelled in theater, TV, and features from a 2010 post I wrote called What is Talent?

“I am not sure what talent is. I have seen moments, and performances, of genius in folks I had dismissed as hacks. I’ve watched students of my own and of others persevere year after year when everyone but themselves knew their efforts were a pitiful waste, and have seen these people blossom into superb actors. And, time and again, I saw the Star of the Class, the Observed of all Observers, move into the greater world and lack the capacity to continue. I don’t know what talent is, and frankly I don’t care.

A common sign in a boxing gym: BOXERS ARE ORDINARY MEN WITH EXTRAORDINARY DETERMINATION. I would rather be able to consider myself in that way than to consider myself one of the ‘talented’; and—if I may—I think you would, too.”
David Mamet
True and False

P.S. I think Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network is the best script written in the last 20 years. And the film that I’ve returned to the most during this pandemic is Moneyball which Sorkin created as writing with Steve Zaillian based on a book by Michael Lewis. A lot of talent came together to make those two films.

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

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“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.”
—Walt Disney

One of the perks of working in production is meeting famous celebrities

Walt Disney World opened 50 years ago today. I remember going within the first few months of its opening. Because I grew up in the Orlando area when the biggest deal was the Central Florida Fair, experiencing Disney for the first time in 1971 was surreal. It was a much smaller attraction than it is today, but I had a blast. That is until my sister crushed my heart by telling me that I wasn’t really driving that Grand Prix car—that it was on a track. She didn’t even give me a spoiler alert! Long live the Grand Prix Raceway (now known as Tomorrowland Speedway).

Here are a couple of tickets I saved from the old days. A child’s admission to Disney World in 1971 was only one dollar. (Admission for a 10-year-old today is $109.) Then you’d buy tickets/coupons to go on select rides. I remember the “E” ticket (not to be confused with the electronic eTicket today) were the big deal because it allowed you to go on these rides: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jungle Cruise, and The Haunted Mansion.

The “B” Ticket got you into the lesser attractions including the Main Street Cinema. Which, if I recall correctly, always had old Steamboat Willie movies playing.

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

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