Archive for May, 2022

”Seek out interestingness.”
—Casey Neistat

It’s not like Casey Neistat and I are hanging making films together, but yesterday I started his online filmmaking and storytelling class. It’s not a sponsored thing either. Just taking it to pick up how he does what he does so well. Part of his secret sauce is spontaneous filmmaking. Just walking outside and seeing what he finds interesting. Or in the case of the above airplane video—find what inside is interesting. That video shot mainly in an airplane seat has 77 million views to date, so there’s quite a few people who find what he does quite interesting.

But it doesn‘t have to be an expensive seat or an exotic location. He first got wide recognition for doing a video complaining about getting a ticket in NYC for not riding in the bike lane. His idea of spontaneous filmmaking is to just go hunt for a basic idea around you and see what unfolds. No overthinking it. No meetings to kill it. (Most of the productions I’ve worked on over the years are fairly well planned out. After a discouraging meeting once, an art director friend quipped, ””How many meetings does it take to kill a good idea?”) So for the first assignment for his class, I looked around me and came up with four ideas from my home, work, and commute. Please help me decide which would make the best spontaneous video.  

1)    Brutalist architecture—think concrete:

Orlando, Florida is not known for its architecture (beyond Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World). A while back I worked on an educational video of a college professor lecturing on Brutalism and it opened my eyes to an architectural style I didn’t understand. In fact, a building considered by some the ugliest in town (the Orlando Public Library) is an example of Brutalist architecture. I think there’s something to explore there since Brutalist buildings are scattered around the world.

2)    Sugar our puppy:
Getting a 9-year-old rescue dog is a setup for heartbreak. But Ginger made it thankfully to 14 and died in 2021. A little over a year later we made a spontaneous decision to get a puppy and it’s been wild two months. Puppies grow up quick so I’ve already shot a lot of videos and stills of her I could use.

3)    My old camera:
Casey stresses looking for ideas close by, and as I watched him talk I literally glanced to my left and two feet away was a box for an old Panasonic HVX 200 that I think I bought new 14 or 15 years ago. Loved that camera. I haven’t shot anything with it in years, but can’t quite come to terms with selling it (it’s worth maybe $200). Again, part of the concept of spontaneous filmmaking is not starting with a well formed three act structure. You just have a catalyst to get started. That camera helped pay a lot of bills for a few years. I don’t know what the ending would be, but the start of that video could just be memories of shooting with that camera.

4)  Kayaking through COVID:
I’d wanted to buy a kayak for years (even used a demo once), but didn’t think I’d have enough time to ever really use it. There are a lot of lakes and waterways in Florida, but time is a more limited resource. But I bought one the second month of the lockdown, and while working at home and a hybrid model for the last two years has provided me the opportunity to kayak over 200 hours in the last two years. This lake photo was taken this morning just after sunrise. Then it was off to the studio to edit. The best of both world.

So which one of these concepts would be more interesting to you to watch?

P.S. Here’s a trailer for the class. I’ll let you know what I think of it when I’m done. But I’m optimistic out of the gate. When I was much younger, I once asked for a refund after the first day of a three day production workshop I took. (As was the policy.) I felt like they covered ground I already knew. An older and wiser production friend told me, “Scott, you don’t go to workshops to learn everything—you go to learn a handful of things you didn’t know so that you can do what you do better.” That was (and still is) great advice. After that, every workshop or seminar I’ve gone to (or video watched) is an opportunity to pick up a few things. And, now that I think about it, that’s probably part of the foundation of this blog. Sometimes I’ll listen to an hour or two podcast interview just looking for that one fresh and interesting thing I can hold on to.

Here’s an example from just my first day in the class. Since Casey doesn’t start with a fully formed idea, while he shooting and walking around his mind is churning with not only the shot he needs for Act 1, but what ideas are there for Acts 2 & 3. Because even though it starts out loosely constructed doesn’t mean he plans on just letting the idea meander. He wants to stick the landing.

”The ending is always the hardest part of any story told. The ending has to be a bow that ties the whole thing together. . . .Without an ending you don’t have a story.”
—Casey Neistat

While that is well said, it’s not exactly a revelation. But what is a revelation is Casey’s success was built on starting videos without even knowing where he was heading. That’s pretty hard to pull off if you have a crew and a budget. But he could pull it off flying solo or with a friend or two. If you’re unfamiliar with Casey check out his film for Nike from 2012 that started without a plan other than basically let’s fly around the world until the budget runs out.

Related posts:

Work hard and be brave —Casey Neistat

Filmmaking is a Sport—Casey Neistat

Do What You Can’t—Casey Neistat

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

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From the South Bay to the Valley
From the West Side to the East Side
Everybody’s very happy
‘Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day

I Love LA written by Randy Newman

My last post touched on the four part Apple TV+ series They Call Me Magic, which was about Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers back in the 1980s. It’s a hot topic at the moment with the HBO TV series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. Both Netflix and Hulu also have projects on the ’80s Lakers in the works. When I mentioned that I briefly worked for the Hollywood equipment rental company BERC (that supplied camera and gear to Lakers games) while I was in film school back in the 80s, one of my friends said he loved hearing about my L.A. time. I’m not sure how many others are interested, but I at least thought it would be fun to explore some highlights as all this Lakers interest has brought back a flood of living in Los Angeles in my 20s.

I may add to this post from time to time, but I’ll start out with just 10 memories of my time in LA between 1982 and 1987.

1Paramount Studios, Hollywood, CA
My first full time production job out of film school was working for a group in Burbank as a 16MM cameraman (Eclair NPR) and editor (Steenbeck flatbed). My first shoot was to fly to Aspen and shoot America’s Downhill. I was 25 years old and thought for sure I was positioned to make my first feature by the time I was 30. But as Robert Redford said in The Natural, “Life didn’t turn out like I planned.” The company I worked for did large screen multimedia productions that were shown in school and youth groups. They had some big corporate sponsorships which helped give access to using current music, movies, and TV shows.

Part of my job was going on the various studio lots (Disney, Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount) to get assets. This was long before camera phones and ubiquitous selfies, so the only photo I have is being on the lot at Paramount Studios in 1987. My co-worker Tom took the photo with the iconic Hollywood sign seen in the background. I don’t recall what assets I was picking up that day, but there’s a good chance it was clips from the movie Summer School starring Mark Harmon. Directed by Carl Reiner, music by Danny Elfman, and screenplay by Jeff Franklin.

Life Lesson: By the time I was 25 I had been on every major film and TV studio in L.A. but I didn’t really have a plan. And I was inpatient. I wanted things to happen faster. So the message to my 25 year old self would be, “Dude, you’re only 25. Keep writing, keep producing stuff, keep meeting people. Give it some time.” (That’s basically what that kid down in Manhattan Beach was doing in 1987, when he wasn’t working at a video rental store—that kid named Quentin Tarantino.)

2—John Huston
There was a post-production house in Burbank where I went to do some color timing for one of our productions, and when I was leaving I saw an older man being pushed in a wheelchair and instantly recognized it as Hollywood legendary John Huston. I was familiar with his acting in Chinatown (where Huston plays Noah Cross), and also knew his directorial work (The African Queen, The Maltese Falcon, Moby Dick, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) I didn’t even approach him, I just stood there star struck as he went by. He died later that year.

Life Lesson: John Huston’s career spanned over seven decades (from the 1920s to the 1980s). He worked as a producer, director, writer, and/or actor on some of the greatest movies ever made and picked up two Oscars along the way. But I doubt most people today could tell you much about Huston or even recognize his name— “All glory is fleeting.” That famous line could describe the movie Sunset Blvd. about the fictitious Norma Desmond or the real life William Holden. Holden received a nominated for his role as a struggling screenwriter in Sunset Blvd., and then won Best Actor in a Leading Role for his work in Stalag 17. But he died in 1981 when he fell drunk and hit his head on a table in his oceanfront condo in Santa Monica. He laid there for three days before anyone missed him.

3—CHiPS & Cheryl Tiegs shoots, Marina del Rey

When I first arrived in LA I was trying to make connections to break into the business. One of those connections was a guy who coordinated shoots at Marina del Ray. He’d tip me off when a shoot was being done there and the first two shoots I went to were the TV show CHiPS (staring Erik Estrada and created by Rick Rosner, and a commercial featuring model Cherl Tiegs.

Life Lesson: Having only worked on student productions at that time it was the first time I realized how boring film shoots can be for someone watching. And it demystified the process. Bigger productions meant more money, nicer equipment, and bigger crews, but the nuts and bolts were the same as student productions.

4—”Alive & Well,“ Marina del Rey
Through my connection at Marina del Rey I was able to land a internship on the USA Network’s cable show Alive & Well. It was my first taste of being a part of a professional crew. It was a multi camera, switched live program taped outside at a hotel overlooking the marina. Memorable guests on the show that I remember talking to were L.A. Dodger Steve Yeager, actor Dean Jones, and fitness guru Jack LaLane. You quickly learn lessons working on a crew. The first is the grind. Call time for me I think was 7:00AM and I lived in Burbank. I think that drive would be intolerable today, but back in the ’80s I could be up at 5:30 AM and make the long drive. And my classes we

re at night, meaning days when I worked on Alive & Well were 16 hours days for when I left my apartment to when I returned. (Not making a dime.)

It was a good group of people and one of the crew wrote “Intern“ on gaffer tape and put it on my chest. I wore it all day and kept it to this day. Alive and Well did not have a teleprompter, but did it old school with cue cards. One day I was holding cue cards for one of the older hosts and she kept telling me I was moving the cards too slow. One of the other crew told me I was doing fine and to not be discouraged, whenever she messed she would just blame it on me. The fitness expert on the show was Kathy Smith who’s gone on to have a long career in the fitness world.

Life Lesson: “If man made it, don’t eat it.”—Jack LaLane. At least were I live, it seems like a new gym is opened every week. Yet, the Harvard University School of Public Health reported a study that, “About half of the adult U.S. population will have obesity and about a quarter will have severe obesity by 2030.” Jack LaLane (a former “sugarholic”) knew the importance of working out, but he also knew about eating the right portions of the right foods. Avoiding soft drinks, sugar, and all that processed food on the inside aisle at the grocery store is a good start. Jack LaLane made it to age 96.

5—Super Bowl of Motocross, Rose Bowl, Pasadena

When I was in film school, I did a bunch of cold calling trying to get paid production gigs and once got ahold of a company shooting the Super Bowl of Motocross that thought they ”might” be able to pay me as a production assistant. My job ended pulling cable down for a cameraman in the area just a few feet where motorcycles flew by. It was exciting, but I also thought this could be how I die. It was another 16 hour day, I earned my first production credit, but when they dust settled they said they didn’t have any money to pay me.

Life Lesson: The lesson I quickly learned from that and my internship is L.A. is full of production opportunities for people willing to work long hours for little or no pay. (A trend that continues to this day. Writers that move to L.A. who end up working as production assistants quickly realize how little time there is to write between their work, commute, and sleep.) It’s not a sin to work on stuff for free or do an unpaid internship if you can swing it financially, but do your best to make sure it’s a project/opportunity that will benefit you.

6—Exploring Every City in LA and Orange Counties
Instead of pursing more lower level production jobs while in film school, I decided to work as a photographer. I started doing freelance work for Yary Photography in Cerritos (just north of Long Beach). It was a flexible schedule, I learned a lot, worked with some good people, and it had the perk of taking me to jobs throughout Southern California. From Santa Barbara to San Diego, from Palos Verdes to Big Bear, and everything in between. It was a visual feast. It left me time and energy to focus on school projects and go to classes and workshops. Also took photos of the L.A. Rams, L.A. Raiders, the USC football teams, and golfer Greg Norman. Ended up taking a staff photographer position there after graduating, and then got promoted to director of photography (stills). But after a couple of years I started to worry that I was drifting too far from my film school dreams, and that led to my cameraman job.

Life Lesson: The old saying is life is what happens when you’re making other plans. My time driving throughout Southern California and experiencing all the different cultures and varied scenery was actually one of the highlights of my life. I don’t think there was a single city in LA and Orange County I didn’t at least drive through. (And probably the majority of Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Imperial countries.) Something that would be very hard to do today because of the increase in population and traffic.

7—L.A. Entertainment: Concerts —Jimmy Buffett (where I caught one of the small toy bears he tossed into the crowd because he legally couldn’t perform a song about Buddy the Bear), James Taylor, Boy George/Culture, a symphony concert of John Williams music at the Hollywood Bowl—complete with an appearance by R2D2, and Bruce Springsteen and a packed L.A. Coliseum for the final concert of his “Born in the USA Tour.“ And in perhaps my most quintessential Hollywood experience was going to a John Mellencamp concert at the Universal Amphitheatre, in I think 1984, and during a break before the encore I met Rob Lowe who was sitting in front of me. We both had a Dayton, Ohio connection, so had a brief interchange about that. Theatre: Seeing Dennis and Randy Quaid in the Sam Shepard play True West, Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Ibsen and Chekhov plays, and Yul Brenner‘s 4,000 performance of The King and I at the grand Hollywood Pantages Theatre. And, of course, Disneyland.

Life Lesson: I don’t know how COVID, the internet, and traffic changed how people seek entertainment in L.A. these days, but when I was in my 20s there was a smorgasbord of options every week. Time and money were your only limitations. I remember going to a concert and a play once in the same night in what turned into an overpacked weekend. In the land of excess, I eventually learned the wisdom of moderation. The Tortoise and Hare stuff.

Yes, I kept the handmade intern badge made for me on day one of working on “Alive & Well”

8—Only in L.A.: As I look back on my time it L.A., parts of it seem like an extended dream vacation. Snow skiing in Big Bear, body surfing The Wedge in Newport Beach, windsurfing in Malibu, surfing in Seal Beach, watching playoff games with both the Dodgers and the Rams, hiking in Lake Arrowhead, taking photos on Venice Beach, shopping on Melrose, visiting the Johnny Carson set at NBC in Burbank, shooting interviews with Eric Dickerson (L.A. Rams), Kim Fields (Facts of Life), and Kirk Cameron (Growing Pains), seeing Jodie Foster at the Farmers Market on Fairfax, talking to actor Charles Haid (Hill Street Blues) at a North Hollywood gym, actor Paul Glesson (the principle in The Breakfast Club) came a spoke to an acting class I was in, and legendary stuntman Terry Leonard (Indiana Jones) came to another. Once toured a gym where I was told Heather Locklear was a member. I’m not saying that’s why I joined the gym—but I never saw her there. (What can I say? I was 21 and a little naive. Kinda like the time the guy told me I “might get paid” on that PA gig. )

Life Lesson: Enjoy the journey, and take what people say with a grain of salt.

9—Film Education: Besides film school where I had classes with producer Bruce A. Block (and author of The Visual Story) and cameraman Peter Gibbons, I took classes and workshops at UCLA extension, AFI, Robert McKee’s story structure, and studied acting for three years (Tracey Roberts, Van Mar Academy, Estelle Harmon, Arthur Mendoza). Loved dropping in at the AFI library to read scripts in the days before the internet. There was Samuel French Book Store and other places where you could buy plays and scripts. Met a ASC director of photography who told me it would be 10 years before I operated a union camera. And, of course, there were great movie theaters in Westwood, a revival theater in Pasadena, the Beverly Center Cineplex, the iconic Cinerama Dome and the Chinese Theatre both in Hollywood. Met Oscar-nominated actor Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story) at a movie theater in Burbank and he genuinely seemed pleased that I recognized him. Great connection to old Hollywood as he got his start as a stuntman working classic Westerns and Ben Hur.

Life Lesson: The history of Hollywood is a glamorous and brutal one. You can be so close, yet so far away. Twenty Feet from Stardom to borrow a phrase from the doc on backup singers. Staying 20 feet (or 20 states) from stardom is not the worst thing in the world if you’ve read more than two biographies or news stories inside the whirlwind of Hollywood.

10—Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (or Austin/Atlanta/Minneapolis/Des Moines/Massapequa)

Give me the weekend to come up with my 10th memory. But I left L.A. in 1987, just as a young guy from the Midwest was arriving. And 33 years later that fellow picked up his first acting Oscar Award—Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood.

…After thinking about it over the weekend, the coolest cat I saw when I lived in L.A. was Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats. If I recall correctly, I saw him hanging out in the parking lot of the Rainbow Room Bar a Grill. It was a prime rock and roll hang out in the 80s, and this was just a year or two after the Stray Cats popped hits “Rock This Town,” “Stray Cat Strut,” and “(She’s) Sexy + 17.” Setzer stood out in the crowd with that crazy pompadour. (I‘ll never know how Setzer didn’t have some kind of involvement in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The man was made for Jack Rabbit Slims.)

Over the weekend that Setzer moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota 15-20 years ago and I believe still lives there. That’s no surprise that he ended up there as it a great arts down and a music scene with roots all the way back to Bob Dylan and Prince. He release a new album last year, and said this about living in the Twin Cities:

”The best thing about Minneapolis – these guys are just as good as any players anywhere in the world. The difference is they’d be in the middle of dinner and they’d be over in 20 minutes. You would never get that in New York or L.A. You’d get his answering machine and a call back in a couple of days and ‘I’m available in a week or two.'”
—Brian Setzer
Brian Setzer moves in Minneapolis and finds his groove

Life Lesson: This is where we come full circle. And you’ve made it this far in this long post, I hope this helps you on your journey. Especially if you’re 17-25 and wondering if you should move to Los Angeles. It’s a different town than when I arrived in 1983. The studio apartment I rented in Burbank for $350 a month now rents for over $2,000 a month. And not only have expenses been supersized there, you can no longer zip all around town because traffic is so bad. There’s a reason people are fleeing to Austin, Texas. (Of course, driving the prices up there.) Where do creative people go if they don’t have deep pockets today? Maybe in a post-COVID world they don’t go anywhere. Writer/directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (who just finished shooting a film shot on a Stephen King story) did go to L.A. after they graduated from the University of Iowa. But they cut their chops making films in their hometown of Davenport, Iowa. In recent interviews, they say if they were young filmmakers today they might just stay in Iowa.

Today, Atlanta is a hotbed of production. I’ve read that all of the film studios in L.A. could fit inside Tyler Perry’s Atlanta studio. (Can someone confirm that?) And while Des Moines hasn’t become a hotbed for features and TV shows, there are some very talented people there. And writer/creator Mike Schur (The Office, Parks and Rec) has TV show on the Field of Dreams that begins shooting in Iowa this year. A production friend of mine did location scouting for it and I’ve read they are going to be training crew of P.A. positions

Fields of Dreams is developed by Universal Television. Universal is launching a Production Assistant (P.A.) Bootcamp training program in Iowa offering an intensive workshop for the job of P.A. — the entry-level gateway into a career in the entertainment industry. The bootcamp will be a two-day work-based job training program, set to take place on June 4 and June 5 (2022). It will teach Iowa residents the foundational knowledge of working in TV production while providing hands-on experience.”
—’Field of Dreams’ Limited Series to Film in Iowa, TV Insider

If you’ve followed this blog much you know that I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa between 2003-2013. Long story short, most of my production friends thought it was career suicide. But it turned into a great decade of working on productions throughout the Midwest and even a few overseas. In 2008, I started this blog as a creative outlet inspired by Univ of Iowa grad Diablo Cody writing the screenplay for Juno while living in Minneapolis. In 2008, she won and Emmy for writing Juno and later that year this blog won a Upper Midwest Emmy in Minneapolis. Cody was big into the music scene when she lived in Minneapolis and imagine she or her ex-husband at least crossed paths a time or two. And when I walked back to my SUV in downtown Minneapolis after winning my Emmy, I imagine I wasn’t too far from Setzer downtown Minneapolis loft.

The bottom line is there are creative people everywhere. Team up with them and create stuff and see where it takes you. Setzer and Cody didn’t just pop up in L.A. and start cashing checks. Cody started writing poetry everyday from age 12 on, and after college wrote a screenplay in the Minneapolis that put her on the map. Setzer started playing the euphonium with school with jazz bands on Long Island and formed the Stray Cats with two other classmates Leon Drucker (Lee Rocker) and James McDonnell (Slim Jim Phantom). And just to prove that talent comes from everywhere, not only did Setzer graduate from Massapequa High School, but so did Jerry Seinfeld. The Baldwin brothers actors and Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) also grew up in Massapequa.

If a kid in Massapequa starts a band, a podcast, or writing a screenplay today in Massapequa I wouldn’t bet against him or her. Especially if they’re sporting a pompadour. There’s something magical going on in Massapequa.

P.S. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that Massapequa is an Indian name meaning “by the mall.”

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

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