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“Harry Crews has a talent all his own. He begins where James Dickey left off.”
Norman Mailer

“I wrote four novels and short stories before I even published anything, and the reason I didn’t publish any of those things was because it wasn’t any good.”
Harry Crews

In his interview on The Tim Ferriss Show, Cal Fussman mentioned that he’s only had writer’s block once in his life and writer Harry Crews (1935-2012)  helped him work through it.

Fussman was so moved reading the novel A Feast of Snakes by Crews that he got in his car and drove 20 hours to meet Crews unannounced at his Gainesville, Florida home. Fussman’s Esquire article Drinking at 1,300 FT: A 9/11 Story About Wine and Wisdom was the result.

I grew up in Central Florida and first became familiar with Crews’ writing back in the 80s. His essay A Day at the Dogfights (from Florida Frenzy) is hard hitting in the Hunter S. Thompson-style of immersive journalism.

From the late 60s to 1997 Crews not only published books, but taught creative writing at the University of Florida. Crews wrote about what he was after in his classes:

“Part of my job as a teacher is first to try to help my students determine what’s worth writing and what is not. If they want to write science fiction or detective stories, that’s fine with me; I just want to make sure they know what they’re doing, to make sure they realize they are not writing the kind of fiction that can crush the heart of the living memory. I want to show them that they are writing nothing but entertainment. It is not that the greatest fiction, the kind I want them to spend their energies on, is not entertaining. It is. But it is so much more than that. It is the ‘more than entertainment’ that I want the writers who work with me to know about, be concerned with, even consumed by.”
Harry Crews
Essay Teaching and Writing in the University
From the book Florida Frenzy

And this is as good a time as any to throw in another quote of his on writing:

“Writing fiction or plays or poetry seems to me to be a very messy business. To be a writer requires an enormous tolerance for frustration, for anxiety, for self-doubt.”
Harry Crews

P.S. Two other names that came up in the Fussman/Ferriss interview were legendary fitness expert Jack LaLane and the great wrestler & coach Dan Gable. I have mentioned them both on this blog before and had the opportunity to work on video/TV productions with both of them. As they sing a few hundred times everyday here in Central Florida, “It’s a small world after all.”

Related link:
Harry Crews: On Writing and Feeling Like a Freak, NPR (1988)

Related posts:
‘Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus’
Jack LaLanne (1914-2011)
Screenwriting Quote #70 (James Dickey)
Thanks for the Plug TomCruise.com (Touches on Dan Gable being Cruise’s hero back when he was a high school wrestler.)
John Irving, Iowa & Writing Touches on the novelist love of wrestling and how he was trying to get a screenplay done on Gables life.

Scott W. Smith

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“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.”
Proverbs 12:15

BillboardListen2.jpg

Yesterday I listened to the longest podcast I’ve ever heard. The Interview Master: Cal Fussman and the Power of Listening on The Tim Ferriss Show is over 3 hours and 22 minutes long and full of storytelling gems.

Fussman is perhaps best known for his Esquire features What I learned, where over the years he’s had the opportunity to interview a wide variety of people including Tom Hanks, Muhammad Ali, Dr. Dre, Helen Mirren, Mikhail Gorbachev, Faye Dunaway, George Forman and Johnny Depp.

Here’s one bit of advice I pulled from that interview.

Q—Tim Ferriss: If you could have a billboard anywhere, with anything on it, what would you put on it?

A—Cal Fussman: One word, listen…I don’t know what reaction that would get, but I would like to see the reaction on people’s faces when they saw that. Listening is an art form, people just aren’t using it as an art form. But it is an art form. And a lot of great things could be achieved through listening.

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) was also interviewed by Tim Ferriss and his answer below is a nice bookend to Fussman’s answer.

Q—Tim Ferriss: If I watch Inside Man or 30 Days I’m consistently impressed  with how you get people to embrace you from different worlds and get people to accept you and trust you. How did you develop that? Or have you always been hardwired for that?

A—Morgan Spurlock: Well I think the biggest thing you have to do is—you just have to listen. The minute you start listening it’s amazing how people will talk to you, and how people will embrace you. We live in a culture where we don’t listen to begin with. I think that’s one. And I think we also live in a culture, and live in a world, where people aren’t honest with each other. And just don’t kind of openly have conversations with you, and talk about things that are hard to talk about…I think that if you come into those kinds of moments wanting to understand, and wanting to understand where someone is coming from—it doesn’t have to be confrontational, it doesn’t have to be ugly—you can have a really honest, above board conversation that is meaningful. So for me I think that’s the biggest thing. I think the best thing I do sometimes is shut up and listen.   

Scott W. Smith

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Before Cal Fussman interviewed Mikail Gorbachev for Esquire magazine he was told that he only had 10 minutes with the one time Soviet Union leader. Instead of jumping in with a question about nuclear disarmament, the Cold War, or Ronald Reagan, he asked this question:

“What’s the best lesson your father ever taught you?”

This turned into a long answer about how Gorbachev’s father took his family to get ice cream before he went off to serve in World War II. When the publicicst showed up ten minutes later Gorbachev wasn’t even finished with the story, much less deeper answers. Fussman thought he’d blow his opportunity.

But Gorbachev said he wanted to speak with Fussman further and ended up connecting the ice cream story—and fears that his father could be killed during the war— to Ronald Reagan and ending the Cold War.

“What I realized was the power of the first question going straight to the heart and not the head. Because it was that first question that went into his head that took us to that very deep place and enabled the interview to continue to go. And because the interview could go, I was able to fill out the page for Esquire. Otherwise that would have been it, there’s no way the interview would have run. So lesson number one is aim for the heart, not the head. Once you get the heart, you can go the head. Once you get the heart and head, then you’ll have a pathway to the soul.”
Cal Fussman
Interview with Tim Ferriss 

Here’s the interview as it appeared in Esquire in 2008:
What I’ve Learned: Mikhail Gorbachev

Esquire What I’ve Learned: The Meaning of Life According to 65 Artists, Athletes, Leaders & Legends

P.S. From the unlikely places file, Gorbachev was from a remote farm in the Soviet Union and Reagan was raised in various Midwestern towns in the United States, but mostly in the small town of Dixon, Illinois. Both would rise up for a season to be the two most powerful people in the world. And for what it’s worth, Fussman went to journalism school in Columbia, Missouri (I visited the University of Missouri back in 2011 and wrote about in the post Brad Pitt & the Future of Journalism).

Related posts:
40 Days of Emotions
Finding Authentic Emotions
Theme= Story’s Heart & Soul
A Beautiful Heart
Storytelling Soul Game
The Creative Fight
Mind, Spirt, Emotion
Filmmaker/Entrepreneur Robert Rodriguez (quote from The Tim Ferriss Show)

Scott W. Smith

 

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“This is not the kind of music that comes from Minneapolis, Minnesota.”
Dick Clark
(After Prince’s appearance on American Bandstand in 1980)

“When you’re coming from the middle of the country…I think it’s easy to be more original.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody

He was born Prince Rogers Nelson in Minneapolis, but the world knew him as just Prince—or as the artist formally known as Prince.

And before Prince won Grammys and an Oscar Award (Best Song, Purple Rain), and before he was called the Prince of First Avenue (a nightclub in downtown Minneapolis), and before he sold 100 million records, and long before he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—he was just another little boy struggling to survive in North Minneapolis.

He was born at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis in 1958. That was just seven years after the hospital opened during time of anti-Semitism, and was a place that offered Jewish physicians opportunities that weren’t always possible at other area hospitals. It was, according to the Twin Cities Daily Planet, “a gift from the Twin Cities Jewish community to serve and employ, among others, those not accepted elsewhere because of their race or religion.”

He grew up on the North Side inner-city of Minneapolis. His father was the leader of the Prince Rogers jazz trio and his mother—who was said by Rolling Stone magazine to have “traces of Billy Holiday in her pipes” sang for the group. They divorced when Prince was 10.

“I didn’t have any money, so I’d just stand outside [McDonald’s on Plymouth Ave.] and smell stuff. Poverty makes people angry, brings out their worst side. I was very bitter when I was young. I was insecure and I’d attack anybody. I couldn’t keep a girlfriend for two weeks. We’d argue about anything.”
Prince
Rolling Stone interview by Neal Karlen in 1985

He went to John Hay Elementary school and in 1976 graduated from Central High School in Minneapolis. He cut his musical teeth performing at various venues in the Minneapolis area and recorded his first album in 1978. A decade later he was a worldwide music legend.

Though he spent time in other places like L.A. and Toronto,  Minneapolis was his home. He eventually opened Paisley Park  in Chanhassen south of Minneapolis, which is where he died this morning.

Plenty will be written about his musical genius, some about the controversies, but since I have a little blog called Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places I’d like to just point out that a sense of place did play part in his success. From his early musical teachers, to the soul (and pain) of his childhood neigborhood, to those who supported his musical rise in the Twin Cities.

Prince was unique in his talent and his success, but Minneapolis has a long musical history. Back in the early ’60s Bob Dylan began his musical rise living and performing there. On Prince’s setlist for his 2007 Super Bowl half-time show he performed All Along the Watchtower written by Dylan. (Prince said in one interview that the Jimi Hendrix version of that song was an early influence.)

When I was living in the Midwest I did several video shoots in Minneapolis and worked with crew members who worked with Prince and enjoyed hearing their stories. There’s no question that Prince was talented—and eccentric. I heard stories that Prince would sometimes do a mini-concert at Paisley Park for the crew after a production wrapped.

I also have a feeling that Prince produced a lot of videos and music that will only see the light of day now that he’s dead.

And just to come full circle…I started this blog back in 2008 after seeing Juno written by Diablo Cody and learning she went to school at the University of Iowa and wrote the Juno screenplay while living and working Minneapolis.

One of the things that drew Cody to Minneapolis was a graphic designer/musician. (I don’t know if she ever crossed paths with Prince in Minneapolis—but I’d bet the she would have loved the opportunity.) Anyway she wrote for City Pages and blogged until then-agent, now producer Mason Novick encouraged her to try her hand at screenwriting.

Which she did in the Minneapolis suburbs of Robinsdale and Crystal just a few miles north of where Prince grew up. (I’m all about seemingly unlikely places for talent to rise up.)  But where Prince grew up is still a tough place. Here’s a quote from a commentary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune just a few days ago.

“North Minneapolis is a war zone. We are afraid. We are losing our young people to gun violence.”
Mickey Cook
April 16, 2016

It reminds me of one of my all time favorite lines in any movie—in the documentary Hoop Dreams the young rising basketball star is asked if he’ll remember them when he’s famous, and the young basketball player says, “You going to remember me if I’m not [famous]?”

Prince is going to be remember for long time. He’ll probably always be the most famous person from North Minneapolis. President Obama tweeted about Prince, “Today we lost an icon.” And while that’s true, Prince lived a very full life before he even turned 30—much less the 57 years he spent on this planet. It would be nice to do something in Prince’s memory that assures young people in North Minneapolis that they may not be famous—but they’ll be allowed to grow up.

Make a statue of Prince—but build up and protect some lives, too.

Related post:
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy) “When you’re coming from the middle of the country…I think it’s easy to be more original.”—Diablo Cody
Screenwriting Postcard from Minneapolis
The Oscars Minnesota-Style
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“A late February 1947 Hollywood Reporter news item speculated that, in cities where it had played, [The Outlaw] had been seen by about sixty-five percent of the total population.”
Turner Classic Movies

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 3.26.53 PM

When 19-year-old actress  Jane Russell was shooting her first movie (The Outlaw) she complained to her director about feeling uncomfortable posing for some photos that a publicity photographer suggested.

According to Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This the advice her director gave her is just as fitting today as it was over 75 years ago:

“You’ve got to protect yourself. If anyone asks you to do anything against your better judgment, say no, loud and clear. You’re in charge of you. No one else.”
Director Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby)

And it will remain solid advice for as long as 19-year-olds continue pursuing acting careers. Way back when I studied acting I remember a young actress in my class being invited to the home of a “busy” producer for an “audition.” When she arrived the producer wanted to know why she brought her boyfriend.

And you don’t have to have Russell’s 38-22-36 measurements, or even be an actress, or even work in Hollywood for that matter, to be put in an uncomfortable situation. So feel free to copy & paste the above quote and send it to whoever you think needs some direction from Howard Hawks.

Howard Hughes eventually replaced Hawks as the director of The Outlaw. Though Hughes had plenty of critics, and though it took him five years to eventually finish the film and get a wide release, The Outlaw became a box office hit.

Russell went on to co-star in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) with Marilyn Monroe, and not only survived Hollywood—but lived to tell about it in her book Jane Russell, My Path & My Detours. She died in 2011 at the age of 89.

P.S. A few side notes to The Outlaw is Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) starred as Doc Holiday, and Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) was the cinematographer for the Hughes directed parts of the movie. Jules Furthman (Rio Bravo, Mutiny on the Bounty) wrote the screenplay.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“When you map your life in retrospect there’s a bit of a blind cartographer at work.”
Jim Harrison
Off to the Side: A Memoir

This is a screenwriting blog that strays off the reservation (the reservation being Hollywood). Or as the official blog of Tom Cruise said a few years ago, “For a more off-beat look at writing, the Screenwriting from Iowa blog provides screenwriters with a slightly removed take from the Hollywood norm.”

We’ve been remembering writer Jim Harrison who died last Saturday so I thought we’d take a little trip today down to Key West and introduce you to a little off-beat film— Tarpon (1973)—that featured Jim Harrison and the music of Jimmy Buffett.

There’s been plenty written and said about Superman v Batman in the last few days since its release but for some reason here’s the only thing I could find recently said about the obscure 40+ year old documentary on tarpon fishing:

“[Director] Guy de la Valdene had all the money and sent a crew that was all French. I speak French now, but I didn’t at the time, so there was a huge communication issue. So we’re in the Keys and taking out boats with [poet] Richard Brautigan and [novelist] Tom McGuane. It really captured the Key West of the ‘70s. It’s sort of a treasure today. But we didn’t really get paid for it. I wrote the music and Harrison was going to do the narration.”
Jimmy Buffett
Men’s Journal

And here’s another memory of Harrison that Buffett tells in the Men’s Journal that rounds out well this round of posts on Harrison:

“One time Jim and I drove his Ford Cortina from Montana to Michigan together. Just the two of us. We seemed to have all these road trips that we did together that were kind of, kind of hilarious. I loved to hear Jim’s view of the world. I don’t know how much he cared about mine. On another trip in Florida, we talked about Cuba a lot. I told him about my grandfather, who was a ship captain who took his family on board in those days, back in the early 1920s. My father spent his first birthday in Havana Harbor, and there’s a family story that my grandfather put up a signal flag to celebrate my dad’s first birthday, and all of the other ships in the harbor started signaling back. So all the sailing ships in Havana Harbor had their flags up for my dad’s first birthday. And he loved that story. Well, the next thing I knew, he told me to look at Legends of The Fall when it came out. The opening of one chapter it says Tristan took a ship to somewhere, and there’s this passage about it. And he told me later, he said ‘Yeah, I did that for your grandpa and your dad.’ He put it in the book.”

P.S. “Jim [Harrison] became famous for his fiction, celebrated internationally as a storyteller of genius, but through all the years, and the novels and novellas and films that came with them, he remained a poet, his life syncopated with contrapuntal complexities and the chromatic cadences of rural landscapes.”
Terry McDonell
The New Yorker, Jim Harrison, Mozart of the Prairie

P.P.S. In 2008 Tarpon became available on DVD. Here are a couple of quotes about the doc:

“Tarpon is a timeless and beautifully executed film about life, sport and culture. You’ll be moved, amused, outraged and, most of all, entertained.” 
Tom Brokaw, Journalist and Author

“This long-lost gem of a film has acquired cult status in the fly fishing world, and with good reason. It has the most breathtaking footage of the tarpon-stalking experience that you’ll ever see. Like the fish itself, this is a work of art.” 
Carl Hiaasen, Author

Related posts:
Writer Jim Harrison
Pat Conroy & Rehearsing for Death
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 2)
Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 3)
Havana Daydreamin’

Scott W. Smith

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This post originally ran in 2010 and I’m reposting it in light of Jim Harrison’s death last Saturday:

“Later that night the ocean again entered Tristan’s dreams…”
Legends of the Fall (Jim Harrison)

“So many nights I just dream of the ocean…”
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes (Jimmy Buffett)

I’m not sure what the connection is between writer Jim Harrison and musician Jimmy Buffett, but I’m pretty sure there is one. Some secret Livingston/Key West handshake.

And somewhere in that connection is a spirit that resonates a longing not limited to the books, poems, and songs they’ve created but they’ve tapped into a desire to experience what it means to be alive. And to desire to not only live a life in full—or to use Hemingway’s phrase “all the way up”— but also to have “a good death.”

The 1994 movie Legends of the Fall, based on a novella by Harrisonis a movie I watch every couple of years. I don’t know if it’s the scenery where director Edward Zwick (Glory) picked to shoot the film in the beautiful Canadian Rockies. I don’t know if it’s the cinematography that captured that beauty—for which DP John Toll won an Oscar in 1995. I don’t know if it’s the actors—or simply Brad Pitt’s character Tristan or his Lawrence of Arabia/John Waynelike  introduction, or the James Horner music—whatever the reason, I find Legends of the Fall repeatedly enjoyable to watch.

Critics were spilt at the time of its release and it’s not hard to see why. It has one foot in being an epic story and one foot in melodrama. Tricky territory. And I think that was by design in an attempt for the movie to gain a large audience of both men and women.  Coming off the heals of a Dances with WolvesLegends of the Falls fell short at the box office & Academy Award-wise compared with Dances (which won Pest Picture and 7 total Oscars and made $184 million domestic). But Legends is the one I return to again and again.

Perhaps Legends the film split the vote more than the book did and paid the price. You have wild horses, guns and war for the men and beautiful western clothes, lawn tennis, and a romance normally associated with a romance novel or soap opera for the ladies. And if any men were on the fence, Pitt’s flowing hair (often perfectly backlit) kept them from going over. I’m never surprised when men tell me they’ve never seen the film. Perhaps a sweeping generalization and an oversimplification, but that’s my take. It’s too—to use Harrison’s word—pretty.

Pitt even jokes on the DVD commentary that the movie’s like a L.L. Bean catalog. This is what the original source writer had to say of the refined mountain life portrayed in the movie;

“I did have issues, as they say now, with certain parts of the film, because I thought, ‘Do they have a French dry cleaner right down the street or something like that?,’ ’cause everybody looked— pretty. But so many people seem to like it and I have no objections because it’s a director’s medium. When you accept your check you’re selling your kid.” 
Jim Harrison
NPR, All Things Considered, Feb. 08, 2007

The movie basically extracts the characters that Harrison created and somewhat places them in a new story. Col. Ludlow (Anthony Hopkins), Alfred (Aidan Quinn), Samuel (Henry Thomas), Tristan (Pitt) and others are all there. Susannah’s role (Julia Ormond) is altered and beefed up. Heck, the book opens with the brothers going to the war where in the movie that doesn’t occur until the 32 minute mark. The book is more Tristan focused and covers more of his far away adventures. Like writer Walter Kirn (who also happens lives in Livingston, Montana where Harrison lives part of the year) said of the movie Up in the Air that was based on his book of the same name—the book is not the movie, and the movie is not the book, but they have the same DNA.

To director Zwick’s credit I think he and screenwriters Bill Wittliff and Susan Shiliday, as well as the talented cast & crew created a film that continues to have legs (and a heartbeat) more than 15 years after it was created and that’s not an easy accomplishment. (And something that I don’t think any of the other films based on Harrison’s work have achieved.)

As a side note, though Harrison has homes now in both Arizona and Montana, and has traveled widely, this is what he wrote a few years ago:

“I have several dear friends in Nebraska and the Niobrara River Valley in the Sandhills is my favorite beautiful spot on earth.” 
Jim Harrison

In my adventures over the years I have been fortunate to experience such things as witnessing a full solar eclipse in Salzburg, been free diving with large green turtles in Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, and flown in a seaplane over the Amazon River, but one of the most unbelievable and unexpected experiences I’ve ever had is watching thousands of Sandhill Cranes fill the sky on the edge of the Nebraska Sand Hills.

To beat the drum once again you don’t need to be in New York and L.A. to find adventures or stories worth telling. Certainly, even a somewhat remote place such as Nebraska has been fertile ground for writers from Harrison (Dalva), to Willa Cather (My Antonia) and screenwriter Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt).

“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pig pen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.”
Willa Cather
My Antonia

May you all have eyes to see.

Up in the Air—The Novel vs. The Film

Scott W. Smith

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