Archive for August, 2022

Warning: Despite the meteoric rise of the screenwriters into today’s post— time, talent, money and grunt work are still necessary ingredients. And as the informercials proclaim: *Results May Vary.

The Players:
The Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross) are identical twins from Durham, North Carolina. Born in 1984 and influenced by 80s movies E.T. and Poltergeist, they began making short films on Hi8 video cameras as kids and went to film school at Chapman University in California. They made their debut feature film with the 78-minute horror thriller Hidden in 2015. In 2016 their Stranger Things series became a Netflix sensation. It looks like the fifth and final season of Stranger Things will become available some time in 2024.

Michael Waldron was born in 1987 and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia and went to Pepperdine University for his MFA in screenwriting. He worked as a writer on various TV projects and in 2022 was the sole credited writer on the Marvel hit film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. (The $200 million film directed by Sam Raimi has made just under a billion dollars worldwide.)

So between Waldron and the writing team of The Duffer Brothers is there something we can point to help explain how some writers from the south with no film or tv connections found off the chart success in Hollywood? In the past few days I happened hear them talk about their creative journeys and I think there are a couple similarities.

Here’s an exchange between Matt and Ross from lesson 15 (”Getting to the Pitch”) from their MasterClass.

Matt: What do you do if you don’t have connections? We didn’t have connections. We were going to film school out here [in Southern California] at Chapman University in Orange County. We were close-ish to LA. We knew we needed to make connections. We knew we needed to meet people who were making stuff within the industry. And throughout the summer, even throughout the year we interned. There’s two of us—again that’s the advantage of having two people. But you can do it yourself obviously. We divided and conquered. We did every internship we could find, and we met as many people as we could. I mean it’s not the most fun thing in the world—these internships.

Ross: In our case, it was work to get college credit. And so you might ask, ’Ok, I found an internship and so what do I do? Do I just hand this brilliant script I’ve written to someone in the company and they’re going to read it and they’re going to get me an agent?’ It’s also not that simple. What you really need to do, as Matt is saying, is you got to put in the work. We made copies of scripts. We fetched coffees. I delivered presents to people. I did Christmas stuff. Some of the time I was given a fun task—‘Read this script and let me know what you think.’ And you do. And you slowly start to earn people’s trust.

One of the companies Ross worked for was Appian Way and one of his bosses was Franklin Leonard. After ”nine, ten months”—NINE, TEN MONTHS—he asked Leonard if he’d read a script of theirs. He did and liked it enough to pass it on to some agents. After some meetings that is how Matt and Ross got their agent. Ross adds, ”It’s still going to take time. It was a couple of years of interning and working before we were even able to get our script in the hand of someone who knew an agent, much less meet an agent. It is a process and it is going to take some time.”

The second success story comes from a great podcast interview of Waldron by John August at Scriptnotes (Episode 555), ”Marveling with Michael Waldron”:

Michael : I went to Pepperdine. They have a screenwriting MFA program, which was great for me. I fell under the tutelage of some really amazing mentors, a guy named Chris Chluess, who was the showrunner of Night Court for a long time, Emmy-winning writer and just a genius, and Sheryl Anderson, who’s the creator/showrunner, Sweet Magnolias on Netflix. I had some great professors. Before, I just knew how to write some jokes and some funny, stupid stuff. They really taught me how to write scripts. From there, I was fortunate enough to land an internship on the first season of Rick and Morty. That was really, really lucky. I was a huge fan of Dan Harmon, because I love Community, even when I was back in Georgia. . . . The cool thing about Pepperdine was it was very practical. It was based on just writing pilots, specs. Each semester, you were creating an original piece of work. I had that very difficult process demystified for me very early on, where I was like, ‘Okay, I know how to write a pilot and create a world.’ . . . I wrote the first draft of Heels, my show on Starz, in a class at Pepperdine. It was very, very helpful for me, because I was just finishing stuff

Through a buddy at Pepperdine he also got an opportunity to do an internship on the first season of Rick and Morty. His next opportunity was a writer’s PA on Community. He was working ”insane hours” for low pay (but getting decent overtime) doing things like getting food for the writers (lunch, dinner, snacks, coffees, and midnight snacks). He called it a nightmare, but you sense that while he was paying his dues, he also knew he was in the game. And he was learning from Dan Harmon and his team of writers.

Michael: It really was a blast, but that was a grind. I don’t know, there were like 13 writers that season. It was Season 5 of a network show, 13 or 14 writers. They had assistants. Each coffee order was a double decker, two boxes. I just remember trudging across Paramount with all that. I was getting lunches, getting meals and everything, but I asked Dan if when I wasn’t doing that, if I could sit in the writers’ room and just listen and learn. He was great, and he let me.

It took a couple of years of knowing Harmon when he felt he’d earned the opportunity to cash in some chips and ask Harmon if he’d read a pilot he’d written. (He was later hired as a producer/writer on Harmon’s Rick and Morty where he won an Emmy.) In 2015 or 2016, Paramount Television optioned Heels.  And fast forward to 2020—just ten years removed from getting his undergraduate degree at Georgia— and he spent 2 1/2 years in London working on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. And he’s attached to write a Star Wars film. What a ride!

The irony is now that Waldron is a hot Hollywood screenwriter, he is back living and working in Atlanta, Georgia where he grew up. He’s the creator the Disney+ Marvel series Loki. Which begs the question—would a 22-year-old Waldron living in Atlanta today still go the Hollywood route? Obviously, the route he took worked out well for him—as it did for The Duffer Brothers. But the landscape and economy has changed in the last 10-15 years. Heck the movie industry has changed greatly in just the last two years. The cost of living in Los Angeles has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. Film school hasn’t gotten any cheaper. And, help me out, what’s the drive from Malibu (where Pepperdine located) or Orange (where Chapman is located) take time and gas-wise to get to Hollywood or Burbank to intern on a show or with a production company? An hour, two hours one way?

The phenomenal success of The Duffer Brothers and Waldron is to be celebrated and appreciated. Learn from their tenacity, but be careful trying to duplicate those exact steps.

P.S. Let me close by crunching a few numbers.

Chapman’s website has undergraduate tuition at $30K and estimates another $11k-15K on housing, so with basic meals the full sticker price for Chapman comes in around $50K per year or $200K for four years. ($400K if your twin brother or sister goes to school with you.) Obviously, scholarships, grants, and other things can bring that cost down. At Pepperdine’s Seaver College Graduate Program their two year MFA in screenwriting degree comes in at an estimated $53,840 per year or just over $107,000. Consider the cost of any college/degree if you don’t have massive scholarships, grants, or financial support from family. But keep writing—that’s basically free.

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

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“I used to think there was a magic golden hour in which I wrote better than any other time. But that time keeps changing, so I no longer think that’s true. It used to be that I wrote the best at night. It had to be midnight. Everyone was alseep and the world felt silent. Now I wake up at 5 AM and I get a lot of writing done. But I also write well in the middle of the day at the office. What happened really is I started writing when I was wearing headphones with music blasting in my ears. Now, as long as I am wearing headphones and music blasting in my ears, I can write at any time of day, anywhere. . . . I can write in a park, I can write in the hallway outside my daughter’s pre-school . . .I can write in a doctor’s office, I can write at the airport, I can write on a sound stage. I can write anywhere because of those headphone. Because of those noise canceling headphones. I highly recommend people try it.
Shonda Rhimes
MasterClass, Lesson 11 “Writing a Script: Effective Habits”

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

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Here’s some advice for emerging TV writers from Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy):

“Get your hands on some pilot scripts. Find the show that you loved their pilot, and you thought Man, if only I could have written something like this. Get your hands on those pilot scripts—they’re easy to find now—read them, and then watch the pilots again. And then read the scripts again. And then really begin to dissect the pilots. What was the structure? How do they work? How many acts did they use? What were the page counts of each act? Why? If it’s a comedy, how many jokes did they have? How did they introduce the characters? Dissect the scripts. Dissect the pilots.”
—Shoda Rhimes
MasterClass, Lesson Two: ”Teach Yourself TV Writing”

The show that Rhimes obsessed over early in her career was The West Wing by Aaron Sorkin. Here’s the pilot script for The West Wing. And for what it’s worth, Quentin Tarantino said that he watched Sorkin’s TV show The Newsroom twice. Here’s a link to the The Newsroom pilot. Apparently all road lead to Aaron Sorkin.

P.S. Rhimes said it’s also helpful to watch a TV show you don’t like and read the script to find out why it doesn’t work.

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

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Two of my favorite films by writer/director Wolfgang Petersen are Das Boot and In the Line of Fire. But the one of his that I’ve returned two more than any others The Perfect Storm. Here’s what drew him to that story:

”The book [The Perfect Storm] is very well known. I think this is a very universal theme and it’s a basic fear people have to go out and go into an extreme situation like weather, especially out in the ocean. The ocean, I think, has had always a magic kind of thing about it. What I personally always found so fascinating is that going out– I grew up in Germany, on the north, right at the water, going out with the boats and sea. You know, the beauty of the sea. The colors and everything. It was a magical place where– where your thoughts– where you fly, where you can build your life in a wonderful way. I always loved that. At the same time, though, the weather can go like this and turn around and you face the biggest disaster you can imagine. This in a world of extremes with the water and the whole mythical aspect about the sea, I think always is interesting for people. And then, of course, fishermen, I think it was interesting to see for a change — that was for me important — for a change to not see your typical Hollywood genre film. . . . I think it was all very real. I mean, we spent a lot of time. If you think about the other risky aspect of it was to actually spend about 40 minutes of time in the beginning of the movie to really set up the whole atmosphere — Where are we here? This is Gloucester, Massachusetts. This is a small town. People don’t make much money. It’s a declining fish industry. It’s all about getting your paycheck. And then comes, you know, shall we risk this late trip again out to sea to get fish? And they decide to do it and we understand why they need the money. It’s all about money. This is not a sort of heroism because of, ‘Oh, let’s climb the mountain’ or glory and so, get sort of great stories in magazines and fame and glory. This is just to get your paycheck. I find that so fascinating that these people risk their lives every single day and so that we have our swordfish on the plate. Alone in Gloucester, 10,000 fishermen died in going out to sea, catching fish since 1623 — 10,000 in Gloucester. That’s amazing.”
Wolfgang Petersen
Interview on The Charle Rose Show

Related posts:
The Perfect Storm, the Crow’s Nest& Gloucester, MA

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

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“[David McCullough] has had a profound influence on all that I’ve done because he’s taught me so much on how you tell a story.”
—Filmmaker Ken Burns

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner writer David McCullough was known for making history human. When he died this week, America lost a national treasure. Thankfully he left behind books that will continue to have an impact, and his distinct voice used in films and television programs will resonate into the future—when today is considered ancient history.

I first remember hearing McCullough’s voice back in 1990 on the PBS series The Civil War, A Film by Ken Burns. In the pre-internet streaming days, his voice-over helped make that documentary a cultural phenomenon.

McCullough’s first book, The Great Bridge, was on the designing and building of the Brooklyn Bridge. When Burns’ made his first documentary, the Academy Award-nominated Brooklyn Bridge, McCullough was one of the scholars he interviewed.

“I remember having the experience in the winter of 1977 of reading a paperback version of The Great Bridge [by David McCullough], the epic story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and turning to my partners who looked at me with astonishment and mind pending madness when I said, ‘I want to make a film about this. This history of the Brooklyn Bridge.’”
—Filmmaker Ken Burns

The only movie poster I own is from Seabiscuit (2013) in which once again McCullough’s voice works its wonder from a script written by Gary Ross (and based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book).

After I first saw the fantastic musical Hamilton I knew I needed to fill in some gaps in my understanding of American history and got the audio version of McCullough’s book 1776. His book The Wright Brothers laid out how the industrious and incredible patent producing Dayton, Ohio at the turn of the 20th century was an ideal place for the Wright Flyer to be built and tested.

McCullough’s book John Adams was the foundation of the HBO mini series starring Paul Giamatti.

I look forward to eveuntally going through all of his writings—all written on a typewriter. In the 60 Minutes piece below they show his 8X12 building behind his house his world headquarters where he focused on writing while living in Martha’s Vineyard.

America lost a giant of a writer in McCullough, but like all the founding fathers of this country he leaves a lasting legacy. One in which we can look back on flawed characters throughout history who had a vision for a more perfect union.

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

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“Cancer got me over unimportant fears, like getting old.”
—Olivia Newton-John

When I heard that Olivia Newton-John died today, I thought of someone who had that rare decade of off-the-chart entertainment success, followed by three decades of dealing off and on with cancer which she publicly handled with much grace.

When I was 10 years old, I’m not sure I knew who Bob Dylan was—but I knew who Olivia Newton-John was. Or at least I knew the cute young lady whose first hit song was the Dylan written song, If Not for You.

By 1974, I was 13 and definitely knew who Newton-John was with the release of her album If you love me, let me know. That voice, those eyes, and that Australian accent captivated this teenager. And a few others as well. The title song became an international hit and her first song to hit #1 on the charts in the US and Canada.

In 1978, Newton-John co-starred in the hit movie Grease with John Travolta. It was not only a commercial and critical success, but is still one of the top box office grossing live-action musicals of all time.

Her 1981 song Physical (written by Terry Shaddick and Steve Kipner) was picked by Billboard as the top song of the ’80s. Over her five decade career it’s estimated that she sold over 100 million albums. And beyond her #1 hits, her four Grammys, and being a key part in an iconic Hollywood movie, the thing that really sets her apart from most entertainers throughout history is she became an active philanthropist. After being treated for breast cancer in 1992, I don’t think you could measure how much money and awareness she raised globally to fight cancer. Her legacy will continue in Australia at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer & Wellness Centre.

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Note: Keep in mind that this quote is from 1947 when most screenwriters and directors were men. It’s from Screen Writer Magazine. According to the archives at the University Wyoming, the magazine was started in 1945 by the Screen Writers Guild, “but the magazine was named a communist publication by the House Un-American Activities Committee and ceased publication in 1948.” (The magazine apparently was started by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and mixed craft and political issues.)

“There is an innate, permanent, and probably necessary struggle between what the director wants to do with his camera and his actors, and what the writer wants to do with his words and his ideas. When this struggle is reconciled, you may get a great picture. When it is eliminated by having both functions performed by the same man, you are much more apt to get the highest common factor of both talents. I know there are some exceptions to this, some famous ones in fact.”
— Novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity)
The Screen Writer, July 1947
Quoted in the book Max Wilk book Schmicks with Underwoods

Part of Chicago-born Chandler’s interesting background before he became a writer was spending part of his childhood in both Croydon, England (south of London) and Plattsmouth, Nebraska. (“The Midwest would always have a peculiar significance for Chandler. It intrigued him later in life to think what might have happened to him had he and his mother stayed there.”—NY TIMES.) According to Wikipedia, he moved to Los Angeles when he was 25 and worked a variety of jobs: ”strung tennis rackets, picked fruit [and]  found steady employment with the Los Angeles Creamery.” His first professional work (Blackmailers Don’t Shoot) wasn’t published until 1933—when he was in his mid-forties.

P.S. If you know of any online links to Screen Writer Magazine please send them my way.

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

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