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“The key to writing fiction and screenplays in terms of character is conflict, just like it is in non-fiction. And you have to come up with what is the thing that’s going to test that character. And how are you going to make evident what they’re all about? If you can’t make it evident through action or the results of action it’s not believable.”
Jessica Abel
Author of Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio

Just a few years ago as the economic dipped and newspapers and magazines started to go out of business or lay off thousands of journalists, some colleges started to drop journalism as an undergraduate or a graduate degree.

Then an interesting phenomenon happened. Podcasts helped revive a new type of audio storytelling.  This American Life, Radiolab, and Serial are currently in the top ten on the iTunes chart and are great examples of audio storytelling/reporting at its best.

In her podcast Out on the Wire, host Jessica Abel explores what radio masters like Ira Glass go through in developing their stories. You may or may not be surprised that the questions are the same ones screenwriters, filmmakers, producers, and studio executive ask when developing their stories.

—What’s the hook?
—What does your protagonist want?
—What’s the inciting incident that disrupts the protagonists life?
—What’s the arc of the story?
—What’s the central conflict?
—Where’s the special sauce?
—Why is it interesting?
—How are the stakes raised?
—What’s universal about this story?
—How will it resonate with an audience?
—What’s the focus sentence? (More on that tomorrow.)
—Is there mystery, surprise, and irony?
—Is there a “You won’t f-ing believe it!” moment?
—Who or what changes?
—What’s the theme? What’s the takeaway when it’s all over?
—How do you make the story land most effectively?

Over the years since graduating from film school I’ve worked professionally in film, television, newspaper, photography, radio, and video production (and non-professionally in theater), which possibly makes podcasting my next frontier to explore creatively.

The tools for working in audio (a microphone, a recorder, headphones, an XLR cord, computer/editing software and batteries) are cheaper to acquire than what’s needed for shooting video/film projects. That and the fact you can work solo, you don’t have to have a college degree (or even have finished high school yet), perhaps explain the rise in individual podcasts.

Sure there’s a gap in storytelling quality between the person just starting out and This American Life, but even Ira Glass said he was bad for a long time before he became good, and eventually great.

On Episode 1 of On the Wire Jessica interviews Stephanie Foo (@imontheradio)  a former young skateboarder who once had a podcast with a few listeners called Get Me on This American Life (that she says wasn’t legit but got her press passes). That opened an opportunity to work on Snap Judgment, and she now is a legit producer at This American Life.

In that interview I think they hot on a universal truth; in the world of storytelling it is not only the protagonist who struggles toward their goal, but the storyteller does as well.

Jessica Abel: What do you want to say to the skateboarding girl who was pretending to journalist, who had a podcast Get Me on This American Life? 

Stephanie Foo: “I wouldn’t talk to that girl because she was excited. I would talk to the girl who was at Snap Judgment producing five stories in a week and feeling like her head was going to explode, and that she was crazy and not good at her job. And I would just say you’re in it.  This what it takes to be good. And it’s working. And you might not feel like it’s working, because you might be buried in a million stories. And you might not be able to find your way out. And the bosses might be like arguing with you, and everybody at work might be an absolute chaotic mess. But that’s what it takes. That’s what everybody goes through to become good. Getting completely messy, feeling completely lost is absolutely necessary to finding your way out and becoming good.

Jessica: The German Forest.

Stephanie: Yeah, the Dark Forest, exactly. Getting completely lost, over and over and over again. Because each time you find different paths out. And so at a certain point you can go almost anywhere and know how to find your way back. It’s kind of nice. 

Stephanie is also the creator of Pilot podcast which according to its website: “Is a podcast that seeks to explore and expand possibilities in audio storytelling across formats and genres. Every episode will be a pilot for a different type of podcast.”

P.S. If you want to do some workshops or gather info on audio storytelling check out the Transom website located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Related post:
Conflict, Conflict, Conflict
Ira Glass on Storytelling
The Major or Central Dramatic Question 
Commitment in the Face of Failure
Finding Authentic Emotions “Just because it’s a worthy cause doesn’t make it interesting.”— Alex Blumberg

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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“Kindness is free.”
Garry Marshall

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When I learned Hollywood legend Garry Marshall died yesterday, I recalled fondly his career in film, theatre, and TV. The producer, writer, director and actor has a special place on this blog as he’s the only person I’ve ever blogged about for 31 days in a row. In fact, I called last October Garry Marshall Month where I re-posted previous wisdom that Marshall passed on through his books and interviews.

What follows are quotes by Marshall (unless otherwise noted):

Garry Marshall’s ‘Gentle Hilarity ’ “I wanted to make films that celebrated the human spirit and high lighted the good in human beings through both comedy and drama.”

Writing and Rewriting ‘Pretty Woman’ (Part You just have to believe that the more you write, the greater the chances are that you can write something that will sell.”

Writing and Rewriting ‘Pretty Woman’ (Part 2) “When Disney first sent me the script for Pretty Woman, it was a dark tale about a cold and heartless corporate raider and a drug-addicted prostitute.

‘The Power of Gentleness’ “Directing is about more than just the nuts and bolts and technological process. That can be learned. It’s also about the people, which is much more difficult to master.”

Screenwriting Quote #171 (Garry Marshall) “It is true that I look for the Cinderella aspect when I am making a film. Most good stories are Cinderella. Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 1) “If you want to be adored on a movie set, don’t be a director, be the caterer. Everyone loves lunch.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 2) “A director has to be part psychiatrist, part teacher, and part parent to everyone on the set.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 3) “The truth is that there are a few stars who are just one taco short of a combo platter. The director’s job is to deal with it all.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 4)  “Yes, I’m a filmmaker and I chart menstrual cycles.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 5) “One of the best characteristics a director can have is the ability to compromise wisely.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 6) “A brief but important moment for me as an actor was when I needed an angle on the character Barnard Thompson, the hotel manager in Pretty Woman. I went to Garry. He paused for a moment and said, ‘Just create the guy you’d like to work for.’ Simple as that. No long discussion. No deep analysis. A slight suggestion and I made it my own. We’ve done 17 movies that way.”—Hector Elizondo

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 7)  “To have a great line is nice, but to have a strong and memorable reaction is even better.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 8) “For the sake of the story, you never want to mislead the audience, unless it’s intentional.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 9) “Film directors should jump at any chance to direct a play because it can improve their relationship with actors.”

Garry Marshall Directing Tips (Part 10) “I will always protect the actor.”

Garry Marshall’s Chicago Detour “Academically, Northwestern opened many new doors for me. It was the first place I learned that words mattered and could lead to a real job.”

Jumping the Shark “People come up and ask me all the time about the phrase jumping the shark and if I find it offensive…”

Happy Days in Hollywood  “Happy Days was for me the quintessential television success story. I had followed my instincts, and they had turned out to be right.”

Wanted: Writers with No Lives “When you hire actors or actresses for a series, you look for people who have well-rounded-lives with supportive friends and family. But when hiring writers…”

The ‘Stuckinna’ Plot “in which the main characters would get ‘stuck in’ something because it helped reduced the number of sets and kept production values down.”

Garry Marshall—Survivor “The truth is that I always wanted a more stable life than my intellectual idols had…. I wanted to come home to a wife, children, and a sane family dinner hour.”

Offensive & Defensive Screenwriting “The biggest lesson a screenwriter can learn is how to master a rewrite of his own script, or someone else’s, and make the change a studio wants without destroying the story.”

Telling the Truth=Humor “[Phil Foster] encouraged us to abandon our sophomoric gag humor and said, ‘Look at people and pick up on their mistakes and inadequacies. Watch human behavior. Telling the truth about people will make them laugh.’”

Tasting & Smelling Comedy Buddy Hackett held up a matchbook and said, ‘What jokes can you write about this?…”

Flaming Rejection “Be prepared at all times for rejection, even after you break in.”

Scott W. Smith

 

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Today I’ll round out my recent run of Aaron Sorkin related posts with a little bit of a twist of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The twist being an oh so loose connection I have to Aaron Sorkin that I just discovered.

Over the weekend I flipping through an old notebook gathered from my L.A. days and discovered some notes from an acting workshop I attended given by actor/director Lou Antonio.

What a career 82-year-old Mr. Antonio has had. He was born in Oklahoma City and began studying acting at the University of Oklahoma. He performed in theaters throughout the Midwest before landing in New York City where he became part of the The Actors Studio studying with Lee Strasberg.

He performed in off-Broadway plays and on Broadway before moving to California in the ’60s where be acted in classic TV shows including Gunsmoke, Mission Impossible, Star Trek and The Fugitive. He also racked up an impressive list of directing projects over five decades; everything from The Flying Nun, The Rockford Files, and The Partridge Family in the 60s & 70s to Chicago Hope, Dawson Creek, and Boston Legal in the 90s & 2000s.

He also was cast in Elia Kazan‘s America, America. (Kazan was a co-founder of The Actors Studio and won an Oscar for directing On the Waterfront.)  And Antonio also happened to have a role in the Cool Hand Luke. What a career, right?

So what’s all this have to do with Aaron Sorkin? Well, Antonio also directed a episode of The West Wing which Sorkin created. And since Sorkin wrote A Few Good Men—there’s the quick connection between both Antonio and Kevin Bacon.

The acting workshop I was a part of was at Tracy Roberts Acting Studio back in the 80s. (My acting career peaked somewhere between playing Tom in The Glass Menagerie and doing a Domino’s Pizza commercial.)  Roberts was also a part of The Actors Studio in its early heyday with Clifford Odets and Stella Adler. (She was an encouragement to me in my L.A. years.)

She was sometime credited as Tracey Roberts and when I put that in The Oracle of Kevin Bacon it says that she was in the movie Actor’s & Sin (1952) with Eddie Albert, and that Albert was in The Big Picture which starred Kevin Bacon. (The Big Picture, by the way, was co-written by Gary Kroeger who I got to know when I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Never forget that it is a small, small world.)

Here’s a couple of quotes from my workshop with Antonio:

“Actors get me out of trouble more than they get me into it.”

“If you know where you are going you’re okay. There are lots of ways to get there.”

“Shape the performance you want, don’t try to change the actor. Work with their training, not against it.”

“Kazan once told me to bring 100 ideas and he may use one. It keeps the actor alive and thinking.”

And lastly, one bit of advice I was actually given at Tracy Roberts Acting Studio after I was disappointed with a scene I did, was from a teacher I can’t remember who told me, “Just because you can’t be Babe Ruth doesn’t mean you you can’t play baseball.”

Not every actor or actress is going to Paul Newman or Meryl Streep, not every writer is going to be Aaron Sorkin, or director Steven Spielberg, but there are many actors, writers, and directors who are less than household names who have had solid careers in the entertainment business.

In fact, tomorrow I’ll begin a series of posts on a screenwriter you may not know much about, but he optioned his first script while still in film school, developed a project with Steven Spielberg, had one film debut number one at the box office, and had a seven digit spec sale. And for most of his career he’s been based outside of Hollywood. Come back tomorrow to learn from his career journey.

Update: Found this Gunsmoke clip that features Lou Antonio (who along with Bruce Dern) torture a town drunk. (For what it’s worth, Bruce’s daughter Laura Dern studied acting with Tracy Roberts.)

Related posts:
Jerry Seinfeld (Part 5) Has Gary Kroger/Larry David clip
The Shakespeare of Hollywood Ben Hecht who wrote Actor’s & Sin
Postcard #49 (Yazoo City) 
Kevin Bacon’s connection to a small Mississippi town

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

Scott W. Smith

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The West Wing, BMWs & Iowa

“I love writing but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, ‘You have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over giftless.’”
Aaron Sorkin
Introduction to The West Wing Script Book

“[The West Wing] didn’t not test well. They let us make the pilot, it didn’t test horrendously, but it didn’t test through the roof. Then Warner Brothers, our studio, in order to convince NBC to put it on their schedule, to order 13 episodes of the show, they came up with a new testing sample that no one had tried before. It tested extremely well with four groups; households earning more than $75,000 a year, households where someone had four years of college, households where they subscribed to The New York Times, and the fourth  and this was a huge deal—remember West Wing went on the air in 1999—households that had home internet access. The reason that fourth one was big—now even one has internet access, but not in 1999—the reason why that fourth one was such a big deal was right in the middle of the dot com boom. And Warner Brothers and NBC were able to show these people where they could advertise. If you went back and watched old TV programs, not on DVD, were for dot coms.  You could see that more than half our ads were for doc coms and BMW. It was dot com and BMW why that show was on the air.”
Producer/writer/The West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin
The Aspen Institute interview with David Brooks

The above video clip is from The West Wing episode from season one titled, In Excelsis Deo. Sorkin an co-writer Rick Cleveland earned an Emmy for that episode. Cleveland was a graduate of the Playwriting Workshop at the University of Iowa proving that after 8 1/2 years of blogging I have yet to exhaust the depth of talent that has flowed (even for just a season) through the great state of Iowa.

It’s worth noting that The West Wing debuted in 1999—the same year The Sopranos first aired. If you’re looking for an exact year when television entered its modern golden age, then 1999 is a pretty good year to pick. At the 52nd Primetime Emmy Awards in 2000, The West Wing edged out The Sopranos for Outstanding Drama Series. (Over their entire runs  The West Wing won 26 total Primetime Emmys, and The Sopranos 21.)   In the Writers Guild of America’s 101 Best Written TV Series listed The Sopranos was at # 1 and The West Wing at #10. Yes, 1999 was a very good year for setting the tone for the future of television.

P.S. Sorkin has also said that the person that first planted the seed for The West Wing idea was Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind). In a casual conversation with Sorkin, Goldsman pointed to a poster of The American President (written by Sorkin) saying it would make a good TV series, “If you concentrated on the senior staffers. Senior staffers at the White House, you’d be good at writing that series.”

And for throw-back Thursday here’s Screenwriting from Iowa muse—University of Iowa graduate and Oscar-winning screenwriter—Diablo Cody.

Diablo Cody poses backstage after winning an Oscar for best original screenplay for Juno at the 80th annual Academy Awards in Hollywood

Diablo Cody poses backstage after winning an Oscar for best original screenplay for “Juno” at the 80th annual Academy Awards, the Oscars, in Hollywood February 24, 2008. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES-OSCARS)

Related post:
Professor Aaron Sorkin
Sorkin on Revealing Character 
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”
Squire Bill Widener
(Often wrongly attributed to Theodore Roosevelt)

[It’s a Wonderful Life] dealt with the sweeping problem, ‘What would happen if any individual had not been born?’  How would the world be if you’d not been born? Because the Jimmy Stewart character was just anybody from a small town, a very normal guy. He wasn’t anything in particular. Just a small town guy who tried to do the best he could with what he had. Now he was dissatisfied all the time. Dissatisfied with his lot. Dissatisfied with his place. Had ambition to do great things. Yet, had he not lived his particular little world would have been a worse place to live in. Now, this is a theme that I think is universal, and I think is one of the greatest themes I’ve ever encountered. I’d never seen it tackled head-on. What would happen to the world had some individual not been born? Now this is the ultimate in individuality. ‘Cause that individual is you, you, you, you, you, you. It was not Napoleon. One people, one little people. [Jimmy Stewart’s character] couln’t go to the war. Considered himself a complete failure. And found out he was worth much more dead than alive because he had a small little equity in a life insurance [policy].And he tries to bring that off [by attempting suicide]. And somebody comes along and says, no don’t do that, you’re pretty important to people, you know. So he gets a chance to see what his world would have been like had he not been born. Then he wants to live. Wants to live very badly. I think that’s a great tale. I don’t give a damn when you tell that story, I think it’s a great story.”
Three time Oscar-winning director Frank Capra 
(And director of It’s a Wonderful Life)
1971 Interview

Today happens to be my birthday and Capra’s words seem a fitting birthday post. (And I hope it’s encouraging to those of you especially going through a rough time.) And for the younger filmmakers out there who’ve perhaps never seen a Frank Capra film, I’m old enough to say, “Stay off the lawn, and go home and watch some Frank Capra films.”

H/T to Scott Myers at Go Into the Story for posting that Capra video a few days ago. I’d never seen it before. And my birthday gift to you—if you like film history and are unaware of this resource—check out the Cinephilia & Beyond  website because it’s outstanding. (And it comes from an unlikely place—Croatia. Consider supporting their work as well.)

P.S. Speaking of unlikely places, I think the official motto of Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikey Places should be; “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” (For what it’s worth, Capra’s journey began in Bisacquino, Sicily, Italy.)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“Gripping … [Into the Lion’s Mouth] will keep you planted in your reading chair from start to finish.”
Author Michael Connelly (The Lincoln Lawyer, Bosch)

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Author Larry Loftis at Barnes & Noble in Orlando

Last Saturday I went to a talk and book signing by writer Larry Loftis on his newly released Into the Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov. It’s the true story of a World War II double agent…and playboy.

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According to Loftis, Popov was the real-life inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond character. Fleming was working for Britian’s  Naval Intelligence Division during World War II and would only say before he died in 1964 that he based Bond on several characters met or heard about.

Loftis relies on new documents to unpack the fascinating life of Popov. I’ve known Loftis for 15-20 years and hope to interview him for this blog and cover his process of researching and writing the book. And also to learn about his working with an L.A. manager in hopes of turning the book into a movie or miniseries.

“Who needs fiction. Truth is a thousand times better, and this true-life adventure has it all. Action, history, secrets, conspiracies—a sizzling piece of entertainment that’s real.”
Steve Berry
(On Into the Lion’s Mouth)

P.S. While Wikipedia lists at least 15 real life people who were linked to the inspiration for the James Bond character (including Popov), one thing we do have is Ian Fleming on camera talking about where he stole the actual name James Bond from; the American ornithologist and author of the book Birds of the West Indies.

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Into the Lion’s Mouth reviews:
USA Today book review
Parade magazine feature 

Related posts:
James Bond, Screenwriting & Golf
James Bond, Spy/Orphan
James Bond is Philip Marlow
Raymond Chandler Interview (by Ian Fleming)

Scott W. Smith

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Peaks & Valleys

“I’ve been around a long enough also to know that careers are peaks and valleys. And it’s just really all about with how much grace and equanimity you can keep walking along in one direction. Whether you’re marching through the valley of the shadow of death or whether you’re at the pinnacle of whatever, it’s such a flaky endeavor and such a fluky business for all of those reasons of what somebody decides is hot at the moment. You can’t pay too much attention to it or it really will drive you nuts. Because for the last two peaks I’ve experienced there’s been five years of valley.”
Writer/Director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption)
Fade In interview with Audrey Kelly
circa  1999 when The Green Mile was released

P.S. And since I pulled a quote from Jodie Foster yesterday, I imagine she’d agree with Darabont. Tomorrow we’ll look at indie filmmaking where the peaks aren’t has high as Darabont and Foster have experienced, and where the valleys are also lower.

Related posts:
‘Television used to suck’—Frank Darabont
Descriptive Writing (Frank Darabont)
‘It’s a Wonderful Prison’ “Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”—Darabont
Legacy Filmmaking (& Your Bank Account)

Scott W. Smith

 

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