Archive for November, 2021

This Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the States and while giving thanks is always a good idea any time of the year, this week seems to bring it to the forefront for many people. This morning after a video shoot a co-worker dropped by the studio and brought her cool new iPhone 13 Pro Max.

I’m still rocking a prehistoric 7+ iPhone so I was thrilled to check out the new camera. I love the new wide angle feature. So I took a few photos of her and she took a couple of me. So thanks McKenzie for the photo.

Photo by McKenzie Lakey

When I was 21 or 22, and still in film school, I was first paid to work in a studio. Even though back then I was just a part-time freelance second assistant to a fashion photographer in L.A., it was like being given the portal to a secret world.

Art’s studio was just outside downtown L.A. between Silver Lake and Chinatown. Back then it wasn’t the safest part of town, which explained why Art had two Doberman Pinschers to keep his live-in studio and Alfa Romero in check. When Art answered the phone he simply said, “Studio.” It was the epitome of cool. And one of the great things about being an assistant is you get to learn a lot just by observing.

Over the years I been in many big and small studios and still find them magical. I’m thankful that through this pandemic (almost two years now) I’ve had a studio to work in and the flexibility to edit at home when things were shut down. I know many people have had their lives turned upside down during this time.

I mentioned a while back my brother-in-law was in the hospital with COVID. Unfortunately, he died from it and there was a graveside service last week and a get together with friends and family afterwards. There was much to be thankful for as memories were shared, and just that it was beautiful blue sky day. My sister said she was aiming that it being a meaningful day and was grateful that was accomplished. It is an act of grace to be able to experience gratitude in the face of loss.

I could write and never stop if wrote down all the things that I’m thankful for just this year. But let me just point you to a movie that is my go to favorite Thanksgiving movie—Pieces of April. I’ve written about that 2003 film staring Katie Holmes many times on this blog, but I think it’s been a few years so let me beat that drum again.

Pieces of April was written and directed by Peter Hedges who was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, so its fitting to treasure that film on this blog. It’s the story of a young lady who is living in NYC and decides to cook Thanksgiving dinner for her estranged family because she’s trying to make amends to her mother who has cancer.

Katie’s character finds her oven isn’t working and things go south from there. Even though it was made for only $200,000 it features an incredible cast and holds up well today because of the performances. And from a screenwriting perspective, it is a wonderful example of conflict/goals/stakes/urgency. And it packs in humor and emotion as well. Check it out and have a Happy Thanksgiving.

Update Thursday 11.25.21

Happy Thanksgiving. Because today is also our wedding anniversary, my wife and I went to St. Augustine to celebrate and see the Nights of Lights holiday display. The historic part of St. Augustine is a visual feast 24/7. But this morning on a narrow side street off the beaten path I was able to capture a not so touristy photo.

Related Pieces of April posts (a deep dive about that film):
Pieces of April (Part 1)
Pieces of April (Part 2) 
Pieces of April (Part 3) 
Pieces of April (Part 4) 
Pieces of April (Part 5)
Pieces of April (Part 6) 
Pieces of April (Part 7)

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

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“When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman.”
Life on the Mississippi written by Mark Twain

Many years ago I read where a National Geographic photographer said some of his best shots were from returning to the same location at not only different times of the day, but different times of the year. Then I learned that bigger movies and commercials had location scouts whose main job is to find great locations for various productions. Reading all the searching that the producers of Cast Away did to find the island for Tom Hanks to be stranded on is how you capture the magic.

When I was a teenager and just learning photography I went to Lake Monroe in Sanford, Florida to take some pictures. I was hoping to take photos of sailboats but instead found some people doing hang gliding. Sanford is flatland country so the hang glider would stand on the edge of the shore and his hang glider was connected to a boat by rope. The boat would speed away and eventually pull the hang glider into the sky.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, after a few successful launches I was situated behind a hang glider who for whatever reason did a face first nose dive into the sand. Broken nose, blood, people crying—the whole deal. I was shocked, but got off a few shots. Not sure where they are now, but it was my “Welcome to photojournalism” moment. An editor for the Sanford Herald inquired about using some photos and a couple years later I become a photojournalist with the Sanford Herald at 19.

I was at the right place at the right time.

Fast forward a few decades and on Saturday I returned to Lake Monroe. Maybe just 50 yards from the great hang gliding flop, I saw a vision emerging in front of me. An old steamboat coming towards me. I just had my iphone and knew I couldn’t get a close shot of it so I ran over to some palm trees to have something to fill the foreground. I cursed there being a light in the corner of the frame. I could have cropped or Photoshopped it out, but once I shifted the photo to black and white I thought it added a nice design element.

So while this isn’t the shot I thought I’d get when I drove to Sanford Saturday, I did drive there with my visual antenna alert to capturing the magic if it came my way. I made note of the time and imagine I’ll return some day with my Nikon and a video camera to get an even better shot and some footage. Who knows, maybe when I return I’ll get the steamboat and a hang glider in the same shot. (Though I’m not sure anyone hang glides there anymore.)

The 21st century doubling for the 19th century

P.S. Long before the pandemic—even long before airplanes and cars—people used to travel to Central Florida via steamboats. My understanding is back in the late 1800s wealthy people in the North East would take the train south to Jacksonville, Florida and board a steamboat on the St. Johns River. They would head south on the river that flows north. They would stop in towns along the way and look at the scenery unlike anything they could see in New York or New England. Imagine an era before the internet and even television and being a Manhattan socialite and seeing your first manatee or alligator. Exotic stuff. (You can ride this steamboat by contacting the the St. Johns Rivership Co.)

I’m not sure that era has ever been captured in a movie, but much of the St. Johns River is visually untouched from what it was like in 1875. About 15 years ago I did shoots on the Amazon and Rio Negro rivers near Manaus, Brazil and it reminded me much of trips I’d had on the St. Johns River. So the St. Johns River can double for South America as well.

And lastly, Lake Monroe is part of the St. Johns River where painter Winslow Homer used to love to leave his Maine home and studio in the winter and fish and paint in and around Enterprise, Florida which sits across the lake from Sanford, Florida.

Winslow Homer painting ”St. Johns River” (1890)

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

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Today I came across an Every Frame a Painting visual essay on Buster Keaton that I first saw back in 2015, and I wondered what Tony Zhou was up to these days. Good timing, too. Just found out that he had a hand in VOIR, a series of essays on cinema. It will be shown on Netflix and the trailer for it just dropped today. David Fincher and David Prior are executive producers and it will debut on December 6. Looking forward to it.

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

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“I wanted to create something that would resonate not just for Korean people but globally. This was my dream.”
Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk

“Unbeknownst to many outside the Midwest, over the past 15 years Des Moines has transformed into one of the richest, most vibrant, and, yes, hip cities in the country, where the local arts scene, entrepreneurial startups and established corporate employers are all thriving.”
Colin Woodward, Politico Magazine in 2016
How America’s Dullest City Got Cool

“Will they love it in Des Moines?” was one of the comments Rod Serling made when talking to students about writing at Ithaca College back in 1972. It was a twist on the old phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” in regards to how well a movie or television (or play) would be received by an audiences outside of New York or Los Angeles.

Places like Des Moines, Iowa and Peoria, Illinois are seen as representing the middle of the country (or the middle of nowhere depending on your perspective). And as someone who started a blog in 2008 titled Screenwriting from Iowa …and Other Unlikely Places, I have long had an affinity for those places outside the cultural hot spots. (I’m even writing a spec TV pilot this month set in Des Moines.)

When I heard Serling’s above Des Moines quote it made me think of something director Steven Speilberg said to Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show way back in 1999.

“I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”
—Steven Spielberg

I thought of that Spielberg quote a couple of weeks ago when Netflix announced that its most viewed original program of all time was Squid Game. The nine-part series was written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk and shot in South Korea. Home base for the production was the town of Daejeon. It’s at city of 1.5 million people, but still an unlikely places for a global phenomenon to originate. In the first month of its release (according to Netflix’s metrics) it had reached 111 million viewers. (And as a side note, Dong-hyuk was born in Seoul, Korea but also has an MFA from USC film school.)

One way to contrast Dong-hyuk and Serling is to look at their lives at age 50. Dong-hyuk is at the peak of his career now at 50, and at age 50 Serling died a legend. (Serling was said to smoke up to four packs of cigarettes a day. As Stephen King has said, smoking can fuel your brain—but it’s killing you at the same time.) But man, Serling packed in a lot in 50 years. Here’s a sweeping overview.

1943—Graduated from Binghamton Central High and joined the U.S. Army the next day.

1944—Saw combat in the South Pacific. Seeing death on a daily basis shaped his life and writing. According the Wikipedia, Serling was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Philippine Liberation Medal.

1950—After the war he got a BA degree in Literature from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He also worked for the college radio station writing and directing programs. After graduating he worked for WLW radio in Cincinnati. He then moved to television working for WKRC also in Cincinnati. While writing things like fake testimonials on his day job, he also submitted radio and Tv dramas on a freelance basis. Sometimes getting rejected and sometimes getting produced.

1953—Now married and his first child on the way he quit his day job in Ohio and moved to Connecticut. (Now or never?) He found work writing for Kraft Television Theatre and the next year moved to New York City.

1955—TV was in its infant stages in the 1950s and Serling wrote the script for Patterns. The show was performed live in 1955 and then shot on tape in 1956.

1956— Serling cranked out script after script for General Electric Theater, Playhouse 90, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse through the 1950s. His amazing run from 1959 to 1964 included not only creating and writing 71 episodes of The Twilight Zone, but also writing the teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight. First performed in 1956, Requiem became a feature in the US in 1962, and British, Dutch, and Yugoslav versions were later produced. It also made its way to Broadway in 1985.

The well runs deep with Serling. But it is The Twilight Zone for which Serling is best known. A show that was not immensely popular in its day, and Serling tired of always fighting corporate censorship. But back in 1959 (just ten years out of college) he put on his old salesman hat and did his best to find sponsors for the unusual show.

Throughout the ’60s and until his death in 1975 Serling continued to write, but he also found time to teach. He had a home in Ithaca, New York and taught at Ithaca College from 1967—1975. The Rod Serling Archives (and I believe some of his Emmys) are at Ithaca College.

Back in June, after stops in Binghamton and Cooperstown, New York I visited Ithaca. It sits on the southern end of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region of Central New York and is also home to Cornell University.

Serling not only knew how to write scripts that would play in Des Moines, but he wrote scripts that would be relevant long after he was dead.

P.S. The Twilight Zone script “To Serve Man by Rod Serling .”

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

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“Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.”
—Six-time Primetime Emmy winner Rod Serling

The day before I visited the National Baseball Museum in Cooperstown, NY, I got to make a brief pilgrimage to another destination I’d long wanted to visit. Binghamton is about an hour and a half drive south west of Cooperstown and is where The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling grew up.

The Twilight Zone is one of my all time favorite TV programs so I went out of my way to make a brief stop there. Though the famed TV show began airing before I was born, it’s just one of those rare programs that resonates deep with me. (Northern Exposure would be another.)

Serling said that one of his personal favorites from The Twilight Zone was Walking Distance that first aired in 1959. It’s the story of a Don Draper advertising type fellow who wanders into his childhood town only to be transported back in time. (And one that features child actor Ron Howard.)

The Walking Distance episode also features a carousel as a set piece. While I think they shot the episode in California, Binghamton calls itself the “Carousel Capital of the World” with six in town. So it’s not a stretch to think Serling tapped into his youth when writing this episode. I stopped at Ross Park to see that carousel that’s been there since 1920. Since Serling was born in 1924 (and this one his next to the Binghamton Zoo) there is a good chance Serling rode this carousel.

No one was riding the historic carousel the day I arrived because it was broken. But the guys working on the repairs were kind enough to let me come in and take some photos. So here’s a snapshot of my stop in The Twilight Zone.

P.S. Serling went to college at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio just north of Dayton. Comedian Dave Chappelle’s father taught at Antioch which is how Dave ended up living in rural Ohio to this day. (How often can you fit Serling, Chappelle, and Ron Howard in one post? Think it’s a first for me.)

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

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