Archive for July, 2022

“I’m a self-taught filmmaker. I never went to film school. I never studied filmmaking. . . . I think Following was the peak of what I was able to do on my own or just with friends using our own resources.”
—Christopher Nolan

“I got my English degree and I couldn’t get into film school, and I just started making my own films on 16mm. And I think that was fortunate for me. I think I was better suited to just making films and leaning from that, than I would have been to learning in a more formal structure.” 
—Producer/writer/director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Dunkirk)

On top of making his own low-budget films, he got a day job to pay the bills.

“I was working in the field of corporate videos. I was doing camera work and sound work for media training sessions. And I actually learned a lot doing that kind of camerawork. Going into an environment, using a couple of lights and setting up fast. You’d figure out how to do something that looked pretty good pretty quickly. That was very much the production methodology that we transferred to film.”
—Christopher Nolan 

In one interview he said he started making 8mm films when he was 7 year old. That’s more than 20 years before his breakout success with Memento in 2000. Just making making and honing his filmmaking craft—despite not getting into film school. A couple years before Memento he finished the 69-minute film Following. It cost $6,000 (mostly for film stock and developing) and took a year to make because the unpaid cast and crew could only shoot on Saturdays because of their other jobs. And they couldn’t even shoot every Saturday because he didn’t have enough money for film.

Step by step.

Here’s the full film.

Related posts:
Lulu Wang’s Day Job Before ‘The Farwell’ (Producing videos for lawyers to be used in legal cases. At the end of that post is also a quote from writer/director Sean Baker who talks about the benefit he got working on corporate and wedding videos after NYU film school.)

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

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”One of the things about the movie that makes it work, rather than just this weird patchwork of various scenes—this movie actually is one of the more realistic movies about a drug deal gone wrong I think I’ve ever seen.”
—Quentin Tarantino on the 1979 movie Cocaine Cowboys
The Video Archives Podcast

Until I listened to The Video Archives Podcast last week, I didn’t even know there was a 1979 movie titled Cocaine Cowboys. But after listening to Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary discuss the movie, I tracked down the movie on YouTube and watched it. Between the movie and the podcast I realized there was enough there to have a mini-film school. Let’s call it a ten point takeaway class.

Back in 2009, I wrote a post called Cocaine Cowboys and the Future of Film. I wrote it the day after I watched my first streaming movie—the 2006 doc Cocaine Cowboys. It was a fascinating look about how Miami became the cocaine capital in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Point #1: The film business is always changing.

The first Blockbuster store opened in 1985 to take part in the booming business of VHS movie rentals. In 2004 there were over 9,000 Blockbuster stores, but in 2010 (just a year after I watching that first streaming movie) Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy and began closing stores. Today there is only one Blockbuster store still open.

Point #2: Giants often have feet of clay.

The lead actor in the feature Cocaine Cowboys was a fellow named Tom Sullivan. He also co-wrote the film, composed the music, sang lead vocals, and self-financed the film in part or in whole with money he thought to have made as a drug dealer.

Point 3: Movies get made with money. And while John Sayles made the indie classic Return of the Secaucus 7 around the same time for only $60,000, Tarantino said he heard the budget for Cocaine Cowboys was as high as a million dollars.

When Avary called the movie a vanity project, Tarantino replied, “Absolutely.” The movie failed at the box-office, and it failed to launch an acting or singing career for Sullivan. But Sullivan does emerge as a charismatic and multi-talented guy. And if he didn’t live to be a rock star, he certainly died like one. After making quite a stir on the New York City party scene, he died in 1981 at age 26 under mysterious circumstances. Here’s his obituary from the Tampa Tribune in June 1981.

Between 1979 and 1981, I was in finishing high school and starting college and spent most of my time in either Orlando, Tampa, or Miami. I never heard of Tom Sullivan, but I met a few Tom Sullivan-like characters. He would have fit in at any country and western bar in Florida in the wake of the movie Urban Cowboy (1980), and here he is—snake skin boots and all—at Studio 54 dancing with none other that Margaret Trudeau (former wife of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau).

They knew all the right people, they took all the right pills
They threw outrageous parties, they paid heavenly bills

Life in the Fast Lane

Point #4: Interesting characters make interesting movies.

Tom Sullivan in “Cocaine Cowboys”

And to top that off, Sullivan was a part of artist Andy Warhol’s inner circle. How he went from being a teenager in Tampa, Florida to the New York social scene and starring in a movie in just a few years sounds like a compelling story by itself. One musician I think had to influence Sullivan was Gram Parsons. Parsons was born in Winter Haven, Florida (an hour east of Tampa) and went on to play and sing on The Byrds 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. His love of the country/rock influenced the Eagles, he hung-out with The Rolling Stones for an extended time in England, and in 1973 he too died at age 26 (from an overdose of morphine and alcohol). And while he didn’t reach commercial success, his relationship with Emmylou Harris resulted in the hauntingly beautiful song Bolder to Birmingham (which Harris co-wrote with Bill Danoff as a tribute to Parsons).

Another musician that probably influenced Sullivan was Jimmy Buffett who arrived in Key West, Florida in 1971 and carved out a niche with his unique blend of folk/country/rock, and stories of pirates and drug smugglers. Buffett did find commercial in 1974 with Come Monday and then in 1977 with Margaritaville. I saw Buffett open for the Eagles in Tampa Stadium in 1980. (Still have my ticket stub from that one. The best $12.50 I ever spent—and free parking if I recall correctly.)

I’ve done a bit of smuggling, I’ve run my share of grass
I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast
Never meant to last, never meant to last

A Pirate Looks at Forty written by Jimmy Buffett (about a colorful character he met in Key West)

Cocaine Cowboys is not a great film, but it’s an interesting one. I found Sullivan’s singing, smuggling, horse-back riding character compelling. But, again, maybe more compelling is how he pulled off a movie that included a small part for legendary actor Jack Palance,and a cameo with Warhol. And they used Warhol’s Montauk estate as the primary location.

Point #5: A proven way to keep your budget low is to shoot primarily in one location. Cocaine Cowboys was shot in Montauk on the far eastern section of Long Island. Closer to Martha’s Vineyard that New York City. I imagine the alternative locations in the film—marina, airport— are not far from Warhol’s place. Even a section meant to be NYC could have been shot in a luxury home or hotel on Long Island, with just an establishing insert shot of the city. By keeping cast and crew staying in homes or hotels in one place prevents downtime doing a company move.

John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), Spike Lee’s Joe’s Bed-Stay Barbershop: We Cut Heads, and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (co-written with Avary) kept their budgets low by maximizing scenes in minimal locations.

Point #6: Always nice to have one or two name actors or personalities in your film. Jack Palance and Andy Warhol fit the bill there. This whole movie could have been shot in three weeks, but they could have shot scenes with Palance and Warhol in a few days each. Actors take on roles for various reasons. An older Palance may have taken the role for the script, the paycheck, a chance to hangout on Montauk, a favor, or even just to meet Andy Warhol.

Point #7: Establish main conflict/plot early. Around nine minutes into Cocaine Cowboys, some drug smugglers abort landing their small plane with 20 kilos of coke because they see a cop car at the small airport. At around the 10 1/2 minute mark they decide to drop the cocaine package near the shoreline of the house. Problem is no one appears to know exactly where the drugs are located. There goal is to find the missing drugs they’re on the hook for.

Point #8: Stakes
“These people have connections literally everywhere. I mean, there aren’t many places to hide when you owe these individuals two million dollars.”

Point #9: Cinematography & Music
Cinematographer Jochen Breitenstein did a wonderful job utilizing everything he could to capture the beauty of the area. “Embrace your limitations” is the mantra of filmmakers of every budget. Perhaps another reason that Cocaine Cowboys didn’t look like your run of the mill 70s low-budget feature is the director was Ulli Lommel who was apart of the New German Cinema. Credited for the music on the film is Elliot Goldenthal who would go on to win an Oscar for his work on Frida. While he also was orchestrator on Heat, Batman Forever, and Drugstore Cowboy, his first credit was score arranger on Cocaine Cowboys.

Point #10 End Strong
Cocaine Cowboys had a satisfying ending. It was an ending setup in act one. And it even was a twist on a twist.

Here’s the whole movie:

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

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Yesterday was the release of the first episode of The Video Archives Podcast featuring Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary. About a decade before they won an Oscar award writing Pulp Fiction, both Tarantino and Avary worked together at the Video Archives store in Manhattan Beach. Tarantino has said before that the years he spent working at the video rental store were his college. A place full of camaraderie with staff and customers as they shared their love for movies in an era when VHS rentals were new. And many years before the internet would be ubiquitous and movies could be streamed on a phone.

To put that in context, I graduated from film school in 1984 and I had never seen a movie on VHS before. There was a war of technology between laserdiscs, Beta decks, and VHS machines. They were all expensive as were movies to buy. You didn’t want to pay $1,000 on a machine that lost that battle. I think it was at the end of ’84 or the beginning of ’85 when the price of a VHS machine dropped to $500 and I bought one. VHS tapes listed for around $69, but when An Officer and a Gentleman had a price drop down to $29 that was the first one I bought.

The summer after I graduated I drove around the country for six glorious weeks without a plan and retuned to Southern California to resume a freelance photography job with a company in Cerritos. I rented a studio apartment in Seal Beach, California and found a place there called One Dollar Video where I rented a movie every night. For a brief time, my routine was wake up, surf, go do a photo shoot somewhere in Southern California, and then watch a movie each night. And I’d breakdown each movie scene by scene on a yellow pad. Once a week I’d take a acting class in Beverly Hills. And I kept in contact with people I went to school with. (One was Peter George who directed the cult film Surf Nazi’s Must Die (1987)—which I hope Tarantino and Avary cover on one of their podcasts as they go through Tarantino’s VHS collection which he bought when Video Archives closed.)

I smile when I think back to the mid-’80s knowing that just 25 miles north west of Seal Beach that Tarantino and Avery were gaining notoriety with their film knowledge working at Video Archives. And they were dreaming of making their own films. I wished that store had of gotten on my radar at that time. In 1987, I landed a 16mm cinematographer/editor job in Burbank and rented a place there. Later I learn that that was around the same time that Tarantino was spending time in Burbank/Glendale. You’d think that like-mined people around the same age would cross paths at some point, but in the age before the internet those connections weren’t made as easily as they are today.

Anyway, Tarantino and Avary have returned to their roots with the Video Archives podcast where they will discuss some of the movies that they recommended when they worked there. The first two movies in the inaugural podcast were two that I was unfamiliar with; Dark Star (1974) and Cocaine Cowboys (the 1979 feature, not the documentary).

Here’s what Tarantino had to say about Dark Star —a movie that started as a USC student film directed by John Carpenter (before directed and co-wrote Halloween), and co-written with (and starring) Dan O’Bannon (before he wrote Alien).

”I’m practically trepidations about how I feel about the movie now. For the simple fact that the thing I don’t want to do on this podcast is throw around the M-word. I want the M-word to mean something. The M-word is masterpiece. I want the M-word to mean something. I don’t want to throw it around. And I don’t want to use the M-word on the very first movie we talk about, but I think actually think it applies to Dark Star. It’s a science fiction masterpiece. It’s a counter-culture, anti-establishment, hippy filmmaking masterpiece. It’s an early 70s masterpiece.” 
—Quentin Tarantino
Video Archives podcast

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

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When the great writer/director Billy Wilder (Sunset Blvd., Some Like it Hot) was asked in the above interview how one could learn screenwriting he said there are workshops and books, but there is an “element x that can’t be taught.” When asked about screenwriting structure he first talked about architecture and the need for a foundation, walls, pillars and the like as part of the ingredients. But then he said there needs to be poetry as well. I think that poetry could also be considered an x-element as well.

Last night as I moved forward with plans to launch a YouTube channel and podcast I outlined an episode based on my 2008 blog post Can Screenwriting Be Taught? Obviously, I think it can. But there is that gap between those who can do something, and those who can do it extremely well. (Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, Aaron Sorkin come to mind.)

Wilder talks about the x-element being present in acting as well. He said, there’s James Cagney and the actors who play Cagney’s friend. (In modern terms that could be what is it about Tom Cruise that sets him apart from the crowd? And allowed him to keep that appeal for so long?) At the top of any talent pyramid there are only a few people. But no one is born at the top of the pyramid. It takes years for things to fall into place. Sometimes decades. I think of actor Bryan Cranston who had a solid 25 year acting career in many “that guy” roles before his Emmy-winning breakout role as Walter White in Breaking Bad. ”I am the one who knocks!”

So what I try to do on this blog (and hope to do on the podcast/YouTube channel) is simply help people be the best writer/filmmaker/creator they can be by learning insights from people who’ve been able to do it at the highest level.

Case in point—The Apartment. Where did Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond come up with that original idea? I’m glad you ask. As he tells it, the kernel of an idea was rooted in the David Lean movie Brief Encounter (1945). A movie that won three Oscars and was based on the Noel Coward play Still Life. The story is about a guy who uses his friends apartment to have an affair.

Wilder and Diamond went sideways with that idea exploring the friend who is letting his friend use his apartment. What‘s his life like? What’s he doing while his friend is borrowing his apartment?

And from that seed grew the character C.C. Baxter played by Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960). A great film. So that’s a glimpse into how it’s done. (And if I did some digging, I imagine I could find the inspiration behind why Coward got the idea for Still Life.)

P.S. Speaking of affairs…The Hamilton soundtrack still plays regularly in my car and I never get tired of listening to Say No to This. One of the many things I love about Hamilton is it shows the consequences of one’s actions. Yet the story ends with a beautiful grace note.

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

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“I loved theater. I always loved playwriting. I always read plays. I read plays for as long as I can remember, and it was never something I imagined that I could making a living at. It was just that simple. But I loved it so much that I’d take writing workshops—never with any ambition that it would lead someplace. But I got to be around it a little bit. . . . The big surprise to me in my life is that because of what my life was and how hard it was to get a good job, that when I had a good union job [working at CBS news in New York City] I left it and took the chance of coming here [to Los Angeles]. I’m still sort of amazed that I was able to do that, because it was a solid union job.”
—Writer/producer/ director James L. Brooks (Broadcast News, The Simpsons, Taxi, Mary Tyler Moore, Terms of Endearment)
Writers on Writing (starting at 22:38 in the video below)

Brooks also wrote and directed As Good as It Gets, was a producer on Jerry Maguire, and going back to the 1960s wrote episodes for the the classic tv shows My Three Sons, That Girl, and The Andy Griffith. What a career. Not bad for a college dropout who never imagined he could be an entertainment writer.

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

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”Have you ever tried to row crew?”
—Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) in The Social Network

The lake I’ve been kayaking on regularly since COVID hit in 2020 also happened to be the lake that Winter Park H.S./Winter Park crew trains on. And for the past 10 months I’ve had a front row seat to watching their boats glide on the water. This years women’s V8 team not only won state and nationals this year, but over the weekend made it to the finals at the Henley Royal Regatta in England. (That legendary regatta is the one featured in The Social Network.)

The day that the Winter Park Crew flew to UK, they were on Lake Howell training here in the states (that’s one long day). Coach Mike Vertullo photographer/drone operator Steven Sobel and me go out on his boat and capture some images of he and his champion team. Here’s a couple shots I took with my phone. Congrats on their success this year. I’m sure it’s one they’ll never forget.

Winter Park Crew lost a close race to St. Catherine’s Crew from Melbourne Australia.

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

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My YouTube Retirement Plan

”I consider myself on my last leg.” 
—Brad Pitt at 58
GQ magazine, 2022

“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
1999 Today Show interview (Six years before YouTube was launched)

My lost in L.A. years (circa 1985)

I had a birthday this week and it seems like every year I get older. Other than having an amazing grasp of the obvious, I’ve decided that when I grow up I want to be a YouTuber. I’m not sure when I first put a video on YouTube, but I do remember doing one in 2010 for this blog that was a spoof on the movie Buried. (I’ll try to track that down.)

While I have a long background working in production, for the first decade of YouTube I used it mostly to find how to do something with either a camera or editing software. I didn’t care if it was Philip Bloom or a teenager showing me something. But I began to see the playing field being leveled. When Vincent Lafort’s video Reverie hit YouTube in 2008 it was the biggest shift in production since The Blair Witch Project in 1999.

Lafort had shown to the world what was possible with Canon’s 5D DSLR camera. Around 2010-11 it seemed like everyone owned a 5D or the less expensive Canon 7D. Around that time an intern showed me Jenna Marbles’ YouTube videos. Casey Neistat started his YouTube channel in 2015 and not long after than a new generation of YouTubers was calling him the Vlogfather for paving the way.

I don’t know exactly where the tipping point was for YouTube, but Neistat’s well published financial success built on the back of his YouTube channel seemed to opened the floodgate for people to start looking at YouTube as an income stream or even a career.

Marques Brownlee (MKBHD) is one who went directly from graduating to college to being a full time YouTuber is quick to point out that it is like professional sports in that there are only a few at the top and most people on YouTube are making little or no money. MKBHD/Brownlee is one of those doing very well as you can see from the studio tour below.

Jimmy Donaldson (MrBeast) said he made no money the first two years of YouTubing and then a dollar a day for the next two years. Last year he (or his company) made $54 million. I imagine he could retire at age 23 more financially secure than 99% of the people in the world.

Not bad since his mom was ready to kick him out of the house just four years ago since he wasn’t interested in college or getting a regular job. Instead he built a YouTube empire.

In the past people have suggested I start a podcast and/or a YouTube channel based on this blog, but it always just seemed like more work that I was willing to commit to. But COVID hit in 2020 and I began reassessing doing a podcast and a regular YouTube channel. Just in the last two months I’ve done a ton of research on YouTube and am hoping to make an official announcement as early as this month. But I’ve had false starts before, but in the meantime I’ll pass on what I’ve learned in the coming weeks for those of you interested in doing the same.

I call it ”My YouTube Retirement Plan” because I think down the road it could be where I spend my time creating content. But there are a lot of moving parts to wrap my head around. But a decade from now I can envison creating content for YouTube (and the like).

Will movie theaters be around 10 years—other than a niche or blockbuster only movies? That’s debatable. Will YouTube (and like) be around 10 years from now. You can bet on that. With CAA completing its acquisition of ICM this week Hollywood is down to three major talent agencies (CAA, ICM, UTA). Hollywood is over 100 years old now— and has been on life support before—but has shown an amazing ability to reinvent itself time and time again. To borrow the words of what David Mamet once said of theater, “Hollywood is always dying, and always being reborn.”

Perhaps the talented and young content creators today will be a part of the next iteration of Hollywood. Consider just this one example of the video $456,000 Squid Game in Real Life—as of today it has 264 million views. MrBeast—at the age of the average film school senior (who is just starting to wonder how he or she is going to pay off their student loans—spent around $4 million dollars producing a version of the Netflix hit. Even if Netflix lawyers decided this was copyright infringement of Squid Games, those 264 million views on MrBeast’s channel would likely cause Netflix executives to say, “How do we partner with this guy and his fan base to help promote Squid Game, Season Two?”

And for those of you not sold on YouTube, think of it like Hollywood around 1912. YouTube is only 17 years old. It’s a teenager raring to go. The YouTube versions of Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin haven’t even come on the scene yet.

P.S. If you’d like to do a deep dive on creating for YouTube here are five places I recommend:
1) Casey Neistat’s Filmmaking & Storytelling
2) Making Compelling Videos That Go Viral, a MasterClass with Marques Brownlee
3) YouTube Storytelling: How to Make Videos that People Share with Colin & Samir
4) Video Storytelling on YouTube and Beyond, Lilly Singh on Skillshare
5) The YouTube Formula (book/audio book), Derral Eves (forward by MrBeast/Jimmy Donaldson

P.P.S. Happy birthday to Tom Cruise who turns 60 tomorrow. No apparent retirement plans in sight for him.

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

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