Archive for March, 2023

If you’ve followed this blog much you know I love taking photos of old movie theaters around the country. I’ve posted dozens over the years in my postcards from the road section. Here’s actually one from Natchez, Mississippi that I took when I drove through the town in December. The Ritz there has seen better days.

The Ritz in Natchez, Mississippi

Contrast that with what Film Streams is doing in Omaha, Nebraska. Their website says they’re an “organization dedicated to enhancing the cultural environment of the Omaha-Council Bluffs (on the Nebraska/Iowa border) area through the presentation and discussion of film as an art form.”

They oversee two cinemas; The Ruth Sokolof Theater and Dundee Theater (Omaha’s longest-running cinema). Film Streams first got on my radar years ago when it was featured on the Criterion Channel website on their Art-House America Series. Executive Director Rachel Jacobson was a key person in this movie revival in Omaha. Another example of what’s going on in unlikely places. My version of that fantasy of a peaceful life on a farm is one that isn’t far from Omaha.

Today’s showings at The Ruth Sokolof Theatre is a good example. It’s just a random Thursday in March, right? Not in Omaha. Today at the Ruth Sokolof Theater they are featuring the Kathryn Bigelow Series. At 3:00 this afternoon you can watch The Hurt Locker, at 6:00 Point Break, and at 8:45 (in 35mm) you can watch Strange Days. Where else in the entire world can you do that today? So Omaha has got it going on.

I’m not sure if Warren Buffett got his fellow Nebraskans together (including his former neighbor in Omaha, Oscar winning writer/director Alexander Payne) and raised a little extra money to have such a dynamic film community, but I think it’s great. I wish I could be there today. Kathryn Bigelow’s direction in that opening scene alone of The Hurt Locker is a tour de force of filmmaking that I’d love to see again on the big screen. She won two Oscars (Best Picture, Best Direction) for her work on The Hurt Locker. And the following “Got a wire” scene is the epitome of a scene full of meaningful conflict loaded with a goal, stakes, and urgency.

Too many theaters in America look like the Ritz in Mississippi did back in December, so it’s exciting to see that they not only have beautiful theaters in Omaha, but a thriving film community. Maybe someone can explain to me what is going on in Omaha that’s making this all possible. Can’t wait to visit those theaters someday.

P.S. And a bonus today, here’s a video Architectural Digest did on the history and evolution of movie theater design,

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

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“If your journey is anything like ours, at some point you’ll hit a wall. Festivals will reject your screenplay. Agencies will pass on representing you. Executives are going to tell you no. Then maybe one day, someone will say yes to your script.”
—Screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (“A Quiet Place”)
From the forward to my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

Currently is movie theaters is the movie 65 produced by Sam Raimi and starring Adam Driver. It was written and directed by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods. They have been on quite a roll since they were the original writers of A Quiet Place. When I saw 65 last week one of the trailers before the film was for The Boogeyman which will come out in June. It’s based on a Stephen King short story, and Beck and Woods are credited screenwriters (along with Mark Heyman).

Beck and Woods also recently released book Haunt: Screenplay and Filmmakers Diaries, and later this year they have plans to open a movie theater called The Last Picture Show in Davenport, Iowa— so 2023 is looking like a good year for Beck and Woods. Not even including other movie projects they are working on now. They are the poster boys for Screenwriting from Iowa…and other Unlikely Places.

Back in 2007, Beck and Woods were students at the University of Iowa and I had a video production company in Cedar Falls, Iowa our paths kinda of first crossed Saturday April 14, 2007 at the Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival in Marion, Iowa. They had a long form student film showing in the afternoon called The Bride Wore Blood: A Contemporary Western, and a short film I made called Elephant Dreams played later that night.

A lot has happened in the 15 years since that film festival. I started this blog in 2008 and won a Upper Midwest Regional later that year. Beck and Woods graduated from Iowa and then cranked out screenplay after screenplay, made a few more films, and then had breakout success with A Quiet Place in 2018. I was told by a crew member we had both worked with in Iowa that Beck and Woods had read my blog and so I asked them to write the forward to the book that flowed out of the blog and they were kind enough to do so. While I can’t take any credit for their success, it is cool to look back and have a couple of touch points. And they should give any filmmaker out there a glimmer of hope that if you are from an unlikely place —with talent and hard work sometimes it all comes together in an amazing career.

My short film Elephant Dreams was about an artist from Bosnia who struggled to pay his rent, but he kept on painting until he ultimately found success. And I made up this Bosnian proverb, “Dream big dreams, dream elephant dreams.” Beck and Woods took it up a notch and dreamed tyrannosaurus dreams—and accomplished them!

“For the longest time growing up in Iowa, it felt like it was impossible to figure out. ‘How do you get into the career of your dreams?’ It took a lot of failure and stumbling. We had one foot in Iowa doing industrial videos and one foot in Los Angeles working on graphic design and anything to pay the rent. And in the meantime, writing scripts. We probably wrote five to six [spec] screenplays over a two-or three year period.”
—Scott Beck
Des Moines Register article by Jay Stahl

Cheers to all the elephant dreams out there. We all won’t find the off the chart success of Beck and Woods, but you can find great joy accomplishing antelope or even chipmunk-sized success. As the saying goes, “Start where you are, with what you have.” Then see where it takes you. There are storytellers and content creators needed all around the world.

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

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“Everybody pays their dues to become successful. . . .I joined the WGA (Writers Guild of America) in 1969 and I came to Hollywood in 1956.”
—Lew Hunter

The Nebraska-to-Hollywood pipeline did not start or end with Lew Hunter. Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Johnny Carson presided Lew Hunter before he became an Emmy-nominated writer and co-founder of the MFA in screenwriting program at UCLA. And one of his students Alexander Payne (who not only was from Omaha, but directed the movie Nebraska) followed him. Lew Hunter died earlier this year and I wanted to share an interview I did with him for in his home in Superior, Nebraska over fifteen years ago.

Back in the early 2000s, Hunter had a yearly screenwriting workshop he held in a Victorian home in Superior, Nebraska. I was never able to attend one of those, but I did send him an email when I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa. I told him I had a video shoot in Colorado Springs for a Chicago book publisher and would love to drop by and meet him along the way. He not only agreed to meet me, but offered to allow me to stay in that home he held the workshop in. It was a wonderful experience.

The population of Superior at that time was under 2,000, but there I was talking to a man with decades of experiences in Hollywood. A man who used to welcome writers into his Burbank home for discussions. (I lived in Burbank back in the ’80s but that was off my radar.) I did attend a UCLA extension one day workshop where Hunter was a speaker. All I remember was he said that unless you’d written three screenplays, he wouldn’t read yours. I’m sure that was his way of weeding out the many requests.

My journey itself to Superior (that bills itself as “The Victorian Capital of Nebraska”) was one of the most unusual of my life. One that I rank up there with seeing a full solar eclipse in Salzburg, Austria in 1999. Somewhere along heading west on Interstate 80 I saw more birds than I’d ever seen in my life. I’m not even sure what kind of birds they were. I even forget what time of year it was but probably late fall or spring. From the Audubon Society of Omaha website it sounds like it might have been Great White-Fronted Geese.

It was like a dark tornado in the sky. I’d never seen anything like it before or anything like it since. Nebraska is full of surprises like that. Birders head to Platte River in Nebraska to see the hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes migrate through Nebraska each year.

After an extended conversation with Lew and his wife, I had the writing retreat house to myself. The big surprise there was not the many scripts that were there, but a collection of video tapes from Hunter’s UCLA classes. One in particular that I remember watching was when UCLA grad Francis Ford Coppola dropped by for a Q&A with students. Think of that scene—I’m essentially in the middle of nowhere watching a video on Coppola talk to students about working on The Godfather movies. (I’d like to think that those videos are on YouTube somewhere, or will be someday. If someone comes across them, I’d be glad to give them a wider audience on YouTube.)

And there was Hunter himself telling me about mother having some connection to University of Nebraska—Lincoln graduate and Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Willa Cather. Hunter wrote the book based on his UCLA class, Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434. And here’s the interview I wrote on him for Create Magazine.

P.S. To show what a small and odd world it is. The video interview I shot in Colorado Springs was with New York Times Bestseller Jerry Jenkins. His son Dallas Jenkins is the creator (director and co-writer) of the popular show The Chosen which can be seen on Amazon Prime. A show that recently got unusual praise from none other than Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader.

Related links: The Nebraska Mafia in L.A.

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

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“Think about someone you know who is skilled in the growth mindset—someone who understands that important qualities can be cultivated. Think about the ways they confront obstacles. Think about the things they do to stretch themselves. What are some ways you might like to change or stretch yourself?”
Carol Dweck, Stanford psychology professor

Last week, Pro Football Hall of Famer Jason Taylor was named the defensive line coach for the Miami Hurricanes football team. The photo above is from a video shoot I did in Taylor’s South Florida home back in 2012. This post is actually a good follow-up to my last one on Andrew Huberman, the brain and dopamine.

Taylor’s already packed a full life of accomplishments in his 48 years. He was an All American linebacker in college and inducted into the University of Akron Ring of Honor. He was drafted by the Miami Dolphins where he was a six-time Pro Bowl selection and in 2006 was named the NFL Defensive player of the year. In 2017, he was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And if that isn’t enough, he and his dance partner were runner ups in season six of Dancing with the Stars.

So why does a multimillionaire take on being an assistant coach? Going back to Huberman’s YouTube video on dopamine , I think the answer to Taylor’s new job is a “growth mindset.” As a professional player, Taylor reached the top of the mountain. But like NFL great turned college coach Deion Sanders, there are other mountains to climb. There’s satisfaction in helping others climb mountains. There is the process, and satisfaction in individual growth.

Academy Award-winning actor Paul Newman once said he rarely went back and watched his movies because he only saw ways he could improve his performance. One way to sum up Newman’s seven decade career could be also be called a growth mindset. I’ve been non-linear editing for almost 30 years and learned how to do something new today in Adobe Premiere. Growth mindset. There is great satisfaction is getting a little bit better everyday.

All of this reminds me of an article I wrote in 2002 called “A Hurricane in Nebraska” that was published in the Orlando Sentinel. It’s about the only former college football head coach I know that won back to back National Championships and has a Ph.D. And after coaching he became an elected politician. Growth mindset.

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

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“How does dopamine work and what does it do? Well, first of all it’s not just responsible for pleasure. It’s responsible for motivation and drive primarily—at the psychological level. Also for craving. Those three things are sort of the same; motivation, drive and craving. It also controls time perception.”
—Andrew Huberman
Huberman Lab Podcast #39

“Everything we do, every thought we’ve ever had, is produced by the human brain. But exactly how it operates remains one of the biggest unsolved mysteries, and it seems the more we probe its secrets, the more surprises we find.”
—Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse

Because of so much information pumped out on YouTube everyday it is hard for much to stand out. I’d never heard of Andrew Huberman until two weeks ago. Then suddenly he’s everywhere. What’s crazy is that in age of TikTok videos (that make the case for Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death), Hurberman is a neuroscientist and associate professor at Stanford University. In 2021 he started a podcast and YouTube channel that are gathering a large following.

Just when you thought the dumbing down of culture was a permanent change, a guy with a PhD starts talking about biology and nerotransmitters and starts racking up millions of views. Case in point is his video Dopamine Mindset & Drive that as I type this has almost 5 million views alone. Some of his videos are 2 and 3 hours in length.

For at least 20 years I’ve done a lot of casual reading and studying on how the brain works. Perhaps it’s just a fascination of trying to wrap my head around creativity behind the standard left brain, right brain conversation. There’s been quite a lot written in the past about athletes and artists getting in a flow state resulting in peak focus and performance. But it’s often from the outward response to being in a flow state.

Huberman comes at things from more of inward view. What is going on in your brain? While he can get deep in the weeds talking about things like neurotransmitters, he has a gift of taking technical research and addressing everyday problems people face such as anxiety, lack of sleep, and addictions.

I think in the past two weeks I think I’ve heard the word dopamine more than I have in the last 20 combined. It’s why I’m calling dopamine the screenwriting word of the year. (I actually think dopamine explains why I’ve written this blog for the past 15 years. There is a simple pleasure in writing these posts.) And to help you wrap your head around its importance, here’s an extended outtake from the 2 hour and 16 minute video above.

“I’m excited to teach you about dopamine, because dopamine has everything to do with how you feel right now as you’re listening to this. It has everything how you’ll feel an hour from now. Has everything to do with your level of motivation and your level of desire and your willingness to push through effort. If ever you’ve interacted with somebody who just doesn’t seem to have any drive, they’ve given up, or if you’ve interacted with someone who seems to have endless drive and energy, what you’re looking at in those two circumstances is without question a difference in the levels of dopamine circulating in their system. There will be other factors, too. But the level of dopamine is the primary determinate of how motivated we are, of how excited we are, how outward facing we are, and how willing we are to lean into life and pursue things.”
—Andrew Huberman
Huberman Lab Podcast #39

If you want an 11-minute version with visuals, check out the video below about dopamine. And if you want to read my feeble attempt to unpack dopamine in limited layman terms for creatives I’ll write that below this video.

In March of 2020, as COVID was shutting down the world, I bought a Hobie kayak. I took advantage of being able to work mostly at home and not having a two hour daily commute. Since I live in Florida and near a 440-acre lake, I was able to kayak often and for about an hour each time. At the start it was magical. Your body naturally releases dopamine into your system at peak levels when you are doing something you enjoy. It could be walking on the beach or in the mountains, being in a new relationship, eating a good meal, or performing an athletic feat, or doing a creative endeavor well.

But that natural high doesn’t last. Your body only can produce so much dopamine. But there are ways that people try to recreate and maximize pleasure that is often destructive. Smoking, alcohol, cocaine, meth, gambling, and pornography are some of the common means that lead to crashes sometimes resulting in addictions that bring anything but pleasure. Addictions that can lead to depression and even suicide. I think it’s why so many musicians die from drug overdoses. They’re trying to reproduce the incredible but fleeting high of performing concerts before tens of thousands of cheering fans who appreciate their music.

The first year I kayaked 125 times. The water, trees, and wildlife (gators, herons, egrets, eagles, and a variety of fish) put me in a happy place. I mostly editing at home and doing occasional video shoots. Even my commute time when needed was cut in half because less people were on the road. It was a rare calm work/life balance.

Because I was working a full time job, I quickly realized the ideal time to go out was at sunrise and sunset. And when the temperature was between 68-72 degrees, it was sunny with a few white puffy clouds in the sky, and a gentle breeze. And for peak calm there were little or no other boats on the lake, no drones flying overhead, and no jet skis buzzing around. The more I kayaked the less those conditions were met all at the same time. My second year of kayaking I went out 50 times, and in year three I only went out just 25 times. The law of diminishing returns. My schedule was totally different in year three, but kayaking wasn’t bringing the same pleasures as it did in the first year. Sometimes it even felt like work. I contemplated selling my kayak.

I think that’s why people often jump from new sport or hobby to another sport to hobby over and over again. Jump from relationship to relationship. The newness wears off. The pleasure diminishes. Andrew Huberman says that your dopamine is at peak levels just before you get the thing you were seeking. The anticipation. If you tell kids you’re going to get ice cream, they’re all excited as you drive to the ice cream place, you stand in line deciding what kind of ice cream you’re going to get, and when you finally get your ice and just before you take that first lick is the peak. At least that’s what neuroscientist studying brain patterns tell us.

And it makes sense. That dress or shirt you were so excited to buy at the store often doesn’t bring the same joy sitting in your closest. The newness of that new car wears off. That trip you planned to take for years doesn’t bring you the joy you had just planning the trip.

Huberman says the answer is to moderate your dopamine. To not try to artificially stimulate a dopamine peak. An illustration from the world of screenwriting that comes to mind comes from an interview I saw with Christopher McQuarrie. He was working as a security guard on LA when he was writing a screenplay that he thought had great potential. It turned out to be The Usual Suspects for which he won an Oscar Award for writing. He said if given the choice to go back in time and either relive the night he won the Oscar or when he was doing and day job and writing s spec screenplay, he would take writing the screenplay because there many personal conflicts in his life at the time he won the Oscar. (Robin Williams once said winning an Oscar changes your life—for about a week.)

For McQuarrie there was joy in the writing process and the anticipation that it could make a good movie. And that’s why I’m calling dopamine the screenwriting word of the year. Understanding how dopamine works in your body is key to understanding your creative flow. And it also might just save your life.

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

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