Archive for January, 2023

“Everything needs to be edited…. My entire career is I cut it down to a little less than you really wanted. When was the last time you saw a movie and thought, ‘Gee, I wish it was a little longer’? Never.”
—Jerry Seinfeld
Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard podcast

Related posts:
Jerry Seinfeld’s System that Will Help Almost Anyone Learn How to Write

The ‘Famous School for Comedians’ that Jerry Seinfeld Failed to Attend

Jerry Seinfeld & Marc Maron on the Essential Element of Comedy

Jerry Seinfeld on What Drives Comedy

The Serious Lesson Jerry Seinfeld Learned from George Burns and Then Laughed All the way to the Bank

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

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This bed is too hard.
This bed is too soft.
This bed is just right.

The End. There you have it—the essence of screenwriting boiled down to just 15 words. (Yes, shorter than the title of this post.) Inspired by words uttered by my wife when she was the lead in a children’s play based on Goldilocks and the Three Bears performed years ago at the James Best Theatre. (The original title of the fairy tale was The Three Bears until Goldliocks apparently not only invaded their home but highjacked the title.)

No need for film school, screenwriting workshops, or screenwriting books. Just a nice three-act structure in 15 words. But if you want it fleshed out a little more there are over 3,000 blog posts you can find on this site. And if you want that in a nicely condensed 250 page book, I recommend my Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles book.

I recently completed a revision of the book. For those of you new to this blog, I started this blog on January 22, 2008 soon after seeing Juno written by Diablo Cody. The fact that she wrote the script in the suburbs of Minneapolis intrigued me. I was living in Cedar Falls, Iowa at the time and I knew she’d graduated from the University of Iowa. Part of her origin story I was drawn to was she first got noticed in Hollywood because of her blog. (Not sure anyone ever followed Cody’s exact path, but this blog did win a Regional Emmy award in 2008. I collected award in Minneapolis and the next day drove to the Starbucks in Crystal, MN where Cody wrote some of Juno.)

Starting a blog was still a novelty in 2008. And it seemed like a great place to curate notes I’d started collecting since I went to film school back in the ’80s. A to it reading (and highlighting) over 200 books on production, seminars (UCLA extension, AFI, Robert McKee—back when it was a once a week class in LA), DVD commentaries, magazines, podcasts, etc. My original plan was to try blogging for a year and hopefully blog a book in that time. It took well over a decade to complete. It needed to be more than a quote book. To make it stand alone as a book it also needed cohesiveness. It needed structure and I landed on ten chapters all beginning with the letter C.

Climax and Conclusions
Controlling Idea
Careers and Cows

I hoped the book & blog would be helpful to others—especially those living far from New York or LA. What I didn’t know in 2008 is Scott Beck and Bryan Woods were students at the University of Iowa. After their breakthrough success writing A Quiet Place (2017), I was told by a mutal production friend we’d both worked with they were familiar with my blog. While I can’t take any credit for their success, the were kind enough to write the forward to my book.

And over the years I’ve been surprise at the shutouts I’ve gotten. Including a mention on the TomCruise.com when his team had blog, filmmaker Edward Burns and producer Ted Hope with mentions on Facebook, and Diablo Cody herself when she was on Twitter. Anyone in the industry who would like to give me a usable quote about my blog or book please email me at info@scottwsmith.com.

After 15 years, it’s finally time I take the next step and launch a podcast and YouTube channel. Starting in February, I’ll start blogging about that process since I’ve spent about six months doing online workshops trying to wrap my head around how some YouTubers create solid content on a weekly basis. (Spoiler alert: To paraphrase what legendary graphic artist said about art, “YouTubing weekly is work.”

When I told a friend about condensing all of screenwriting down to 15 words he said, what about the not so happy ending. I thought for a second and recited the classic Mother Goose nursery rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Of course, the original Goldilocks story ends with her being awakened by the bears whose home she invaded and her jumping out the window. The actual ending was opened-ended with the writer saying it was not known if Goldilocks broke her neck, got lost in the woods, or made it home and got whipped. I forgot that darker part of that story. Which is maybe why I just stuck with those 15 words about finding a “just right” bed.

But let’s say that Goldilocks learned her lesson and lived happily ever after, as opposed to Humpty Dumpty who had a fatal fall. It’s an echo of Order and Chaos. Yin and Yang. Purpose and Nihilism. Blessings and Curses.

In what way is the abridged version of Goldilocks finding the right bed the essence of life? It’s that aspiration part of human nature that is looking for peace and contentment. On one level it’s our car is running, our bills are paid, our relationships are healthy, our work is fulfilling, and the bad guys get caught. It’s been said that even the person attempting to commit suicide is looking for peace. It is why I think most movies end with what writer/director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) called an uptick.

It’s why when a friend said he felt like my book needed to end with a benediction I thought of the ancient text embraced by multiple faiths:

The LORD bless thee, and keep thee:
The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:
The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace.

Number 6:24-26

Peace be with you.

P.S. Stephen King once suggested somewhere trying to write 1,000 words a day. That was an early inspiration when I started this blog. It’s why it was not unheard of to have posts that ran between 1,000-2,000 words. My original goal was a 65,000 word book. When I last checked I’d written over a million words on this blog. The first book came in around 70,000 words. Two more in the works will probably land around 50,000.

And speaking of Stephen King, here’s the just dropped trailer for The Boogeyman based on a short story by King—and a screenplay by Scott Beck & Bryan Woods and Mark Heyman. Warning: It doesn’t start out too peaceful.

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

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Well, 2023 hasn’t started out like I thought it would. I’m tempted to just skip ahead to 2024, but since I have no power to do so I’ll forge on. Besides, I wouldn’t want to miss my 15th anniversary in two days of writing this blog.

And to keep moving onward, I’m going to tap into a photo I took at the end of 2022 in Raton, New Mexico near the Colorado border. It’s of the wonderful castle-like building of the El Raton Theatre. It first opened in 1930 which is that era just as talking pictures were replacing silent movies. The website says it’s closed now but adds, “See you in 2023! Thank you for your patience while we restore El Raton Theatre to its original glory!” That’s petty cool.

I have a fantasy some day of living in a small Main Street town and owning a movie theater. My version of Cicely, Alaska from the classic TV show Northern Exposure. (A show that I actually think played a part in my living in Cedar Falls, Iowa for a decade.)
But instead of KBHR (and Chris in the Morning) being the philosophical voice of the town, my movie theater would be a place for open discussions.

Someone said a few years ago (screenwriter Paul Schrader?) that we’d only have four kinds of movies in the future. I think they were Superhero movies, kid movies, horror movies, and experimental. Everything else is streamed. Something like that. Of that group, the experimental movie interests me the most. That’s the kind of movie that would play in my theater. And it would also be accompanied by a Q&A with the filmmaker.

At nearby Rollins Collins college, on different nights, I’ve heard filmmakers Sean Baker (The Florida Project) and Ken Burns (The Civil War) give talks about their films and creative process. I love those kinds of experiences. Now that we’re coming up on the third year mark of when COVID shifted the way we live our life, I’m not hopeful that the movie theater experience is ever going to have the kind of cultural relevance that it had from 1970 to 2020.

Sure TV in the 1950s and VHS machines on the 1980s impacted people going to movie theaters, but I think both of those actually enhanced movies. It was a way to see great films from the past. Or to rewatch great current films. Streaming is different. The emphasis is on free (if you pirate a password or within a monthly fee). I thought of this last night when I went on the Amazon app and flip through some movies. It’s like we have an unlimited meal plan to McDonalds.

My solution last night was to go over to the PBS app and start watching Burns’ documentary on The U.S. and the Holocaust. Which actually reminds me, two years ago I did drive through the small town in New Hampshire when Burns makes his films and has a restaurant. That dude figured out how to live Northern Exposure-style even before there was a show called Northern Exposure. He figured out just out of college that if he went to New York City and sought out production work that before he’d no it he’d 50 and have never got around to making the kind of films he wanted to make.

Burns moved to a small town where he could live inexpensively and worked on his doc Brooklyn Bridge which launched his career. He said he thought he was taking a vow of poverty to work on documentaries, but instead it’s made him wealthy. And put him at ground central for a world now in love with documentaries.

Who knows, maybe there’s a filmmaker living in Raton, New Mexico today working on a film today that will make him the Ken Burns of tomorrow. According to the El Raton website, the grand opening for 520 seat theatre was April 20, 1930. “The inaugural movie was a Warner Brothers sound picture in natural color; Song of the West starring John Boles and Joe E. Brown.”

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

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“Pelé changed everything.”
—Brazilian soccer great Neymar

Back in 2007 I was working as a cameraman on a shoot in Brazil when I did the dumbest thing I ever did on a production. We flew into São Paulo which I knew was Pelé territory. The soccor great was one of those rare athletes who reached global icon status. The top of the short list over my lifetime is Ali, Tiger, Michael Jordan, and Pelé.

We were told that São Paulo was not the safest place in the world at the time. In fact, just before we arrived there had been a murder at the ranch where we were supposed to stay. We had a security guy with us most of the time. He told us what it took to provide security for the band U2 and the Pope who were both in Brazil in 2006/2007. In short, let me just say there is a reason the Travel Channel has an article titled How to Stay Safe in Rio.

But one night in Rio de Janeiro, I dropped my common sense when I saw a street vender selling a Pelé jersey I just had to have. I was told it was $10 which seemed like a deal. This is where I made a tactical error and reached in my pocket and pulled out a small stack of Brazilian bills (reais). Later someone on the production crew said every mugger within five miles turned their head to look at me. The good news is it was an uneventful transaction and I still have that Pelé 15 years later.

I remembered that shirt after I learned that Pelé died recently. Much has been said and written about the Pelé winning three FIFA World Cups with the Brazil National Football Team, being the key figure for populaizing soccer in the United States, and in 1999 being named The World’s Best Man Player of the Century.

But the lesson I’m going to pass on from Pelé is a pure rags to riches story. Growing up in poverty Pelé could not afford a soccer ball or soccer shoes so he played the game barefoot with a sock stuffed with rags for a ball. Years later in 1970, Puma paid him $120,000 to simply tie his shoes at the World Cup. While he made millions playing soccer, he made tens of millions in endorsement and advertisements deals long after his career was over. His net worth at the end was estimated to be around $100 million.

The lesson there is the ole, do what you can, where you are, with what you have.

Barbara Walters died the day after Pelé died. Over the years I read many stories of the uphill battle she faced as a female journalist in the 1950s. She started her career in broadcasting doing publicity and writing press releases for WNBT-TV in New York City. But the time her career slowed down she’d interviewed Fidel Castro, Margaret Thatcher, Michael Jackson, Sir Laurence Olivier, Jimmy Carter, and the list goes on and on.

Many years ago someone recommended the book she wrote titled How to talk with practically anybody about practically anything. I picked up a used copy and found it a very useful book. Still have it to this day. I’ve applied many of her principles over the last 20 years. In the book she tells the story about when she had lunch with Aristotle Onassis who at the time was one of the riches men in the world. She was hoping to convince him to do a TV interview with her. At the lunch she first she found him to be intimidating and uncooperative. Then she asked him a question that caught his attention:

“Tell me Mr. Onassis, you’re so successful—not just in shipping and airlines, but in other industries too—I wonder, how did you begin? What was your very first job?

“It was like saying the secret word on the old Groucho Marx show, the one that brought down the floppy duck. Onassis clearly was delighted with the question and immediatley became very animated. He told me that he was born in Turkey but emigrated alone to Argentina after his father was jailed during the persecution of the Greeks by the Turks. In Argentina, young Onassis worked as a dishwasher, a construction worker, and finally as a cigarette salesman, which ultimately led to his first big fortune. He seemed touchingly proud that his beginnings had been so lonely and difficult.”

And he agreed to do an interview—on his yacht.

Walter’s made a career out of asking questions that were then seen as a little off beat in traditional journalist. But I’ve found asking most people something about their hometown and/or the equivalent of their first job are great ice breakers.

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


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I took off for a weekend last month just to try and recall the whole year
All of the faces and all of the places wonderin’ where they all disappeared

Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes
Written by Jimmy Buffett

Happy New Year!

I started this postcard section on my blog back when I was on the road more working on various productions around the country. It was a way to keep the blog going without having to write full posts. But here’s a photo I took back in high school before I knew that it would lead to career. (And I’ll unpack its significance below.)

Jimmy Buffett performing in 1980 at Tampa Stadium

My dad bought me my first 35mm camera (Konica TC) the Christmas of my senior year of high school. A month later I drove over to Tampa with two car loads of fellow Lake Howell H.S. students to see a Jimmy Buffett & Eagles concert. (Best $12.50 I ever spent. I’ve seen single ticket stubs alone from that concert on Ebay for $50.) I found the above photo I took in 1980 while doing some after Christmas cleaning. It’s not a technically great photo so I ran it through the Prisma app to gloss over its imperfections. I was only 18–and only had the camera a month— but I think captures Buffett’s onstage personality. That camera was a gift that turned into a career. You never know when a gift you give today will bless someone well into the future.

Rewind a few years to 1977 with the release of the Eagles album Hotel California and Buffett’s Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. What a one-two punch for a 16-year-old just starting to drive and see the world open up. (I only discovered a few weeks ago that parts of both of those albums were recorded in ’76 at Criteria Studios down in Miami.) I had two years of listening to those 8-track tapes over and over again, as well as their previous albums, before I went to that concert with 50,000 other people. Some days are just better than others.

But it didn’t make me want to be a rock star—I knew that my musical abilities peaked playing the triangle in kindergarten. But I was pulled in by so many of their lyrics—and stories— even if I didn’t (and still don’t) understand them all.

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax,” said the night man
“We are programmed to receive
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave”

Hotel California

Last year, I listened to the audio book Rock Me on the Water by Ronald Brownstein and it helped give a context to what was going on in the cultural landscape of Los Angeles in the mid-70s with the Troubadour and Hollywood crowd in particular. And the ripple effect it caused throughout the post-Vietnam United States.

The early 1970s was the moment when all three of these industries [music/film/TV] simultaneously reached a creative peak—and 1974 stood as the absolute pinnacle of this cultural renaissance. For Los Angeles, those glittering months represented magic hour.”

Ronald Brownstein

What I didn’t know at that Eagles/Buffett concert in January 1980 was the ’70s were over. Gone. (News traveled to Florida slower in the pre-internet days.) I was infatuated with something that was history. I still moved to L.A. in 1982 to find it. I can listen to Jackson Browne’s ’70s songs now and believe that he saw the sun setting on that California utopia.

I want to know what became of the changes
We waited for love to bring
Were they only the fitful dreams
Of some greater awakening

—Jackson Browne, The Pretender (1976)

By the late ’70s, disco had largely replaced folk rock in pop culture. Hair bands, rap, Purple Rain/Thriller/Material Girl, and grunge followed. A few months after that Tampa concert, the Eagles broke up. The hippies that once repudiated materialism, prospered in the computer culture they helped create and became even more materialistic than the post-WWII generation they were protesting against.

But Buffett just keep doing his thing. Being a singer/songwriter. Somehow keeping his fan base all these decades later in a way that most of his contemporaries haven’t. For those of us drawn to Buffett’s literary lyrics more than his liquor lyrics there was still plenty to ponder. A course to sail.

You had to be there…

And there’s that one particular harbour
Sheltered from the wind
Where the children play on the shore each day
And all are safe within

One Particular Harbour (1983), Jimmy Buffett

When I look at that photo of Buffett in Tampa smiling, I can’t help but think of my 18-year-old self and all the adventures he’s going to have. All the places he’s going to go, all the people he’s going to meet, and all the images he’s going to capture. Here’s a couple photos from my home office to remind me of his influence.

I found that 1980 photo on Christmas Day, which just happened to be Buffett’s 76th birthday. Happy Birthday J.B.

My hope is if I make it to 76, some filmmakers or content creators say something like, “I stumbled upon this Screenwriting from Iowa blog when I was in high school….”

P.S. And after 15 years of blogging this month, I think I’m finally ready to stick my toes into the YouTube waters this month. More about that in the coming days.

Related posts:
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 2)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 3)
Highway 61 Meets A1A
Magic vs. Grit

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

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