Archive for September, 2022

“Everyone who’s sat in that chair has died of unnatural causes.”
—Sound bite from the Crooked City/Youngstown, Ohio podcast

The above quote from the Crooked City podcast shows just how connected ancient Athens, Greece is to contemporary Youngstown, Ohio. (At least, a fairly recent era of Youngstown folklore.) A story that dates back a couple hundred years B.C. is that of a fellow named Damocles who told the king, Dionysius, that the king had it made in the shade.

The king knew otherwise. Because despite his royal exterior of grandeur, there was an ever-present threat of danger. And to illustrate this point, Dionysius offered Damocles the opportunity to sit upon his throne for one day. Damocles jumped at the chance to sit in the seat of luxury.

But Dionysus had mounted a sword above his throne—hung by the single hair of a horse’s hair—to remind himself of the hazards of the job. He had deadly enemies. Damocles had a change of heart and decided that he didn’t want to live like a king after all. That’s where the phrase, “The sword of Damocles” comes from. He didn’t last a day on the job. Too much stress.

”Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
—Shakespeare’s Henry IV

The same could be said for being a politician (or a Mafia leader) in Youngstown, Ohio. One of the central characters in Crooked City is Jim Traficant, a former U.S. House of Representative from Youngstown. A man who once took money from the mob, and also did prison time for bribery, racketeering, and tax evasion.

Producer Marc Smerling’s Crooked City paints Youngstown as steel mill boomtown turned ”Crime Town USA.” A 1963 Saturday Evening Post headline read, ”Youngstown has had 75 bombings, 11 killings, in a decade and no one seems to care.” Youngstown is situated between Cleveland, OH and Pittsburg, PA so there were turf wars just like you’ll find in any good Mafia movie.

Things didn’t improve as the steel mills that originally made Youngstown prosperous began closing in the mid-‘70s. In 1991, Youngstown had 59 murders, one for every 2,000 people. One of the highest per capita in the United States.

I realized listening to Crooked City that it actually embodies most of the ingredients I write about in my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles.
—Climaxes and Conclusions
—Controlling Idea
—Careers and Cows

I think all of my chapters are all well represented in Crooked City. (Except for the reference to cows. But Smerling makes up for it by starting and ending his podcast with an odd and deadly tractor accident on a 170 acre Youngstown-area farm.) And I’m not sure about the whole catharsis thing. I think Youngstown is still coming to terms with its past as it tries to move into the future.

It’s also a sound bite machine from a wide ranging cast of real life characters who make up Youngstown’s colorful past. Here are my two favorite sound bites (from my favorite podcast of 2022) that would fit right at home in a Hollywood screenplay.

“He had eyes as black as coal, and a heart twice as dark.”

”Joey was the type of guy—his clothes has to be perfect. Well-dressed, groomed. He would floss his teeth 50 times a day.”

Stephen King says you should be able to depict a setting or person with just two or three choice details. I think those two are great descriptions. The one gives you a good feel for Joey Naples. (Naples by the way was killed in an ambush.)

I’ve watched (well, technically listened to) podcasts evolve greatly over the last decade. And, truth be told, I think I’ve listened to more podcasts than watched movies since the start of the pandemic lockdowns in March of 2020. And the fact that Crooked City is so good is no accident. It turns out that Smerling has an M.A. from USC film school, is an Emmy-winning and Academy Award-nominated producer whose credits include All Good Things (2010) which starred Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. Are podcasts the new indie films?

”I wanted to continue to tell crime stories that delved much deeper and had something larger to say about who we are. Crime is nothing if not the purest distillation of the dark side of human experience.”
—Marc Smerling

One more Crooked City sound bite:

“[Jim]Traficant was the most talented politician this area has ever seen. Traficant was also the most corrupt.”

P.S. I have a love affair with Youngstown, Ohio. Probably because my dad was from Youngstown. He briefly worked at Youngstown Sheet and Tube, and his father worked there for over 30 years. After I listened to Crooked City, I watched ESPN’s Youngstown Boys (2013) documentary that I actually had never seen. I’m starting to think Youngstown, Ohio (and former Ohio State football player Maurice Clarett)— are a microcosm of the United States. Representing what it means to have tasted both greatness and brutal loss—and striving for redemption.

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

Read Full Post »

”As a quarterback, I’ve been the guy that people were yelling for; I’ve been the guy that’s been booed in my own stadium.”
—Scott Frost

The Hollywood ending for the University of Nebraska was supposed to go something like this: A once powerhouse football team hires its former star quarterback to restore their program to national prominence. Instead, head football coach Scott Frost was fired this week after he started the season with a record of one win and two loses. Nebraska not only failed to play in a bowl game with Frost as coach, but they actually lost more games than they won over the last five years.

But, man, the setup was great. 

Frost was a Parade All-American quarterback while playing for a rural high school in Nebraska. As a QB at the University of Nebraska, he led the Cornhuskers to a shared National Championship in 1997. As a coach, he was the offensive coordinator at Oregon where he helped Marcus Mariota win the Heisman Trophy. He became the head coach at the University of Central Florida and the turnaround he brought to that program was so significant that I even mentioned it in my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles in the chapter on change. 

In 2015, the University of Central Florida (UCF) football team finished the season 0-12. This was the worst season in school history, and the team finished last in the American Athletic Conference. The head coach resigned before the season ended. Two years later, the team finished with a Peach Bowl win against Auburn and a 13-0 record. They not only won their conference, and finished in the top ten for the first time in major polls, but in The Colley Matrix they were listed as the 2017 National Champions.

Although such extreme reversals are uncommon in sports and otherwise, they happen often in the movies. This is probably a big part of why we watch movies. As Blake Snyder says, “All stories are about transformation.”

After two seasons at UCF, Frost signed a 7-year deal worth $35 million to be the head coach at his alma mater. Who better to bring back the glory than a home grown hero? Of course, the problem with being on top of the mountain is the only place to go is down. Sports, like movies, reflect well the ”thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” Frost has experienced a roller coaster of highs and lows in just one six year period.

“A reversal changes the direction of the story 180 degrees. . . . Reversals can work physically or emotionally. They can reverse the action or reverse a character’s emotions.”
-Linda Seger
Making A Good Script Great

But this isn’t exactly uncharted territory for Frost. In high school he experienced what it was like to lose a state championship game. In the NFL he experienced a short-lived career as a player. As an assistant at Oregon he experienced losing a National Championship game. I imagine he’d say that all those set-backs made his other successes all that sweeter. 

And he’ll come back. Because he’s a winner. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was hired as a QB coach in the NFL or a college offensive coordinator by the end of the year. Or he could wait for ideal head coaching job which is better setup for sucess than he had at Nebraska. And to take the sting away, Frost gets a $15 million buyout of his contract. Beats getting fired and wondering how you’re going to afford keeping your Midwest home heated this winter. 

P.S. Here are a few quirky connections to Scott Frost. When I started this blog in 2008 I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa. In 2008, Scott Frost was also living in Cedar Falls, Iowa where he was an assistant football coach at the University of Northern Iowa. My high school football coach, Sam Weir, was also once the head coach at the University of Central Florida. And when Frost coached at UCF, I lived less than 4 miles from him.

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

Read Full Post »

These mills, they built the tanks and bombs
That won this country’s wars

—Bruce Springteen, Youngstown

My grandfather worked for Youngstown Sheet and Tube for at least 30 years (because after 30 years of service he received a Zippo Lighter with his initials on it). I always wondered what his job was like. And thanks to YouTube, this past Labor Day weekend I stumbled across a documentary produced in 1944 by the U.S. government. I imagine it was shot to boost morale during World War II.

With talk these days about people “quietly quitting” jobs I thought it would give a perspective on what work looked like for some in a previous generation.

My grandfather would have been working at the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Struthers plant in 1944, and his son (my father) spent a year working there in after high school. That makes me a son of a son of steelworker. My father decided he wanted a different life and went to Ohio State before joining the Air Force where he was pilot. A stop at McCoy Air Force base in a pre-Disney Orlando, Florida convinced my father to bet his future on Central Florida. Those were good moves for him and his family. In 1971, Disney World opened just outside Orlando. Economic growth 101. In Youngstown on September 19, 1977, 5,000 steel workers found themselves abruptly out of work. Economic decline 101.

At its peak (1950) Youngstown Sheet and Tube had 27,000 employees. Eventually all the mills shut down in the area resulting in 50,000 jobs lost. The effects of the mills closing over 40 years ago can be felt there today. According to Wikipedia, Youngstown’s population today is 60% down from its 1959 numbers.

Over the years I’ve found time to occasionally stop in Youngstown and monitor the slow changes that leaders have made over the years as the town seeks to reinvent itself. That’s one of the things that America and Americans do best.

Unfortunately, there are growing pangs along the way. Toss in a storied history of Mafia presence and funky politics and there is enough material rooted in Youngstown for someone to do a On the Waterfront/The Godfather/Hamilton-style story. Paving the way is the Bruce Springsteen song Youngstown, and this year’s podcast Crooked City.

P.S. “Youngstown was the home for Amil Dinsio, who I think legitimately is the LeBron James of bank burglars.”

—Screenwriter Keith Shannon (Finding Steve McQueen, a story drawn from the famous 1972 Laguna Niguel bank heist led by Dinsio.)

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

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: