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Archive for the ‘Screenwriters’ Category

“It might have been one of the strangest nights in the history of Los Angeles, which is a city that has had its share of strange nights.”
Susan Orlean (on the 24-hour Save the Book telethon in 1987)
The Library Book, page 122

As I make my way through the audio book and paperback of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, I am constantly shaking my head of having no recollection of the events surrounding the April 29, 1986 Los Angeles Public Library that she so well documents.

The event itself was easy to overlook for most Americans because it was overshadowed by the Chernobyl disaster and the entire world was on standby wondering what the global reprcussions would be from a nuclear fallout. But I was living in Los Angeles in April of 1986 so you’d think it would be kicking around somewhere in my memory bank. I remember well the Night Stalker terrorizing the city in ’84-85, Brice Springteen’s Born in the USA tour at the L.A. Colusumn in ’85, the ’87 Whitter Earthquake, and that the movie The God’s Must Be Crazy played for months. But I’m drawing a blank about the LA Public Library fire.

And Orlean does beauitiful job talking about the events following the fire and how the city rallied restore was was lost after a million books were destroyed or damaged. While the damage to the building was covered by insurance the books were not. So a Save the Books campaign was started culminating with a 24-Hour telethon in January 1987.

The telethon was hosted by the “unconventinal”, cigar smoking televangelist The Rev. Gene Scott at his Glendale studios and University TV Network. As Orlean recounts of the around the clock telethon;

“The fund-raising goal was $2 million. Celebrities were wrangled to appear on the show reading from their favorite books. There were dozens of celebrities readers, including Red Buttons, former governor Pat Brown, Angie Dickinson, Lakers coach Pat Riley, Ernest Borgnine, Edite Albert, and Henry Kissinger. Dinah Shore read from The Prince of Tide. Charlton Heston read the last chapter of Moby-Dick. Zsa Zsa Gabor showed up but forgot to bring a book.”

The entire telethon was rerun the next day and they exceeded there goal of $2 million. The Library Book is a great read/listen. Apparently, many people are discovering the book’s second wind with it’s recent paperback release.

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While I don’t remember the library fire—or the 24 hour telethon, I do remember Gene Scott. I used to stumble across his broadcast from time to time and he was always good for an unusual five minute. I hadn’t thought about him in over a decade until recently where I read an interview with Quentin Tarantino where he commented on watching him.

Scott died in 1985 and the Los Angeles Times reported that he “earned a doctorate in philosophies of education from Stanford University in 1957, also was influenced by the late Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.” He had his share of followers and critics.

After his death NPR stated that Gene Scott was a man that all channel surfers would recognize. They said, “Scott’s on air manner and apperance were hard to forget. He cursed, and ranted, wore sombreros one day, a crown the next, and asked for money—and got lots of it.”His television show was said to be carried in 180 countries.

I don’t know if a documentary was ever done on Gene Scott, but I imagine there will be sooner or later. Perhaps that’s something Tarantino can work on in his “retirement.”

But mark Janaury 11, 1987 as one unusual day in L.A. history.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“After his first Broadway smash, Hart’s life morphed from the grim black-and-white of poverty to Technicolor.”
Meryl Gordon

I don’t recall the stock market crash of 1929 getting get mentioned in playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart’s autobiography Act One.. Perhaps because in 1929 he was in his 20s and had never had money in the first place. That was also the year when he was working on a play with established playwright George S. Kaufman in the daytime and directing small theatre plays at night.

Even though he and Kaufman’s play Once in a Lifetime debuted on Broadway in 1930, the Great Depression didn’t seem to have an effect on ticket sales of that show. Other shows didn’t fair as well and ticket prices drop to stay running.

As the Depression deepened, there were other ‘angels from within’ who fought to ease some of the suffering of the ailing system. Playwright Rachel Crothers helped to organize the Stage Relief Fund to assist actors in paying for food, rent, medical necessities and utilities. Dramatic actress Selena Royle helped to initiate and run the Actor’s Dinner Club, where hot meals were served nightly at $1.00 each to those who could afford it and free to those who could not. It is reported that during the leanest season of Broadway, over 120,000 free meals were served.”
Robert Rusie
Broadway 101

The Great Depression lasted until 1939. But for Hart the ’30s were incredibly productive and profitable.  Hart and Kaufman wrote the Broadway hits You Can’t Take It with You (1936) and The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939).  In 1937 Hart and Kaufman were awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for You Can’t Take it With You, and the following year the movie version based on their play won an Best Picture Oscar and and Frank Capra won the Best Director Oscar.

In the ’40s Hart also wrote screenplays including Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) for which he earned an Oscar nomination. In the ’50s he worked on the screenplay for A Star is Born (1954). There were many other plays and movies he worked on (including musicals with Cole Porter and Irving Berlin) but his last big production was directing My Fair Lady for which he won a Tony Award.

His autobiography was published in 1959 and since it’s titled Act One and only went up to 1930, you sense that he eventually planed to write the books Act Two, and Act Three down the road. But he died in 1961 at age 57 of a heart attack.

Something else he doesn’t mention in his book is is struggle with depression.

“He had terrible depressions. But I find that most creative people have creative depressions. . . . And he would go into these declines and it would sometimes be two weeks before he’d come out. But he never imposed that sort of thing on other people.”
Kitty Carlisle, Moss Hart’s wife
YouTube video 

Hart’s letter are keep in the Wisconsin Historic Society in Madison. There were off limit many years after his death. But according to a Vanity Fair article he does talk more openly about his depression and bouts of writer’s block.

Scott W. Smith 

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Audrey Wells wrote the screenplay for The Hate U Give which hit theaters today. Unfortunately, Wells died last night after what The Wrap called “a long and private battle with cancer.”

She may be best known for writing and directing Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) which starred Diane Lane. But in her 20+ year career, she also wrote films that featured some of Hollywood’s biggest named actors; Richard Gere, Uma Thurman, Susan Sarandon, Dwayne Johnson, Dennis Quaid, and Bruce Willis.

My favorite Wells film is The Kid (2000) in which Willis plays an image consultant who’s lost his way. It touches themes that can be found in Jerry Maguire and Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone episode Walking Distance.

“Martin Sloan, age thirty-six. Occupation: vice-president, ad agency, in charge of media. This is not just a Sunday drive for Martin Sloan. He perhaps doesn’t know it at the time, but it’s an exodus. Somewhere up the road he’s looking for sanity. And somewhere up the road, he’ll find something else.”
Rod Serling intro to Walking Distance

Martin Sloan, though successful in business,  has a sense of disillusionment of who he’d become.  The’s an echo of Sloan in the successful sports agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) who has a breakdown and asks himself, “Who had I become?”

The Willis character doesn’t have to rely on memory or nostalgia to be confronted with his personal life situation, he actually is confronted via movie magic by his younger self who tells him, “I grow up to be a loser.”

There are some tender scenes in The Kid, but before Willis goes through a transformation, Wells had to show how untender the Willis character could be.

Here’s a quote I posted back in 2010 that featured a quote by Wells on her screenwriting process.

“I always work backwards from theme. I know some people are driven by story first, or by character first, I’m driven by theme first. Every movie is about something. So once I know what that theme is about then I percolate on different ways to illustrate the theme. And every scene in the movie will be in service to supporting the theme…Under the Tuscan Sun was supposed to be about what happens between the day you wish you were dead and the day you’re glad you’re alive again. And everything I put in the movie was supposed to illustrate that journey and build towards that moment of being glad you’re alive again.”
Screenwriter Audrey Wells
Guest speaker at Anatomy of a Script

Earlier this week I posted part 2 and part 3  of a Q&A I did with screenwriter Clare Sera. On Sunday, a film she co-wrote (Smallfoot) was number one at the box office. But Clare pointed out that having a film come out and get press is great—but it’s just a blip. It’s not her life. She added, “it is my relationships that are my actual life, that is what my life is.”

It sounds like that was Audrey’s life as well. Her husband said in a statement I read via The Hollywood Reporter:

“Even during her fight, she never stopped living, working or traveling, and she never lost her joy, wonder and optimism. She was, simply, the most incredible wife and partner imaginable, and she knew always that she was loved by [our daughter] Tatiana, me and the friends who were her chosen family.”She said just recently, ‘We’re so lucky, honey. We got to live a love story. Who gets to do that?’” 
Brian Larky

Scott W. Smith

 

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Neil Simon (1927-2018)

“Did I relax and watch my boyhood ambitions being fulfilled before my eyes? Not if you were born in the Bronx, in the Depression and Jewish, you don’t.”
Emmy, Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winner Neil Simon

When I heard that playwright/screenwriter Neal Simon died over the weekend I thought back to when I read that back in the ’60s he once had three plays he’d written being performed on Broadway at the same time. I though that was remarkable.

Then I read in the New York Times today that he actually had four plays on Broadway at the same time:

For seven months in 1967, he had four productions running at the same time on Broadway: “Barefoot in the Park,” ”The Odd Couple,” ”Sweet Charity,” and “The Star-Spangled Girl.”

He started out writing in television in the late 40s and in the 50s with legends Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Larry Gelbart, and Mel Brooks. He followed his TV success as a Tony award-winning playwright and a four-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter.

I thought I’d put up links to posts that feature his work and quotes:

Writing ‘The Odd Couple’
Two People, One Confrontation
Neil Simon on Conflict  
Neil Simon on Critics 
The Odd Couple vs. The Odd Couple 
Can Screenwriting Be Taught? (Simon claimed he learned to write from his brother Danny)

Scott W. Smith 

 

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Note: This post originally ran in 2014 as Finding Authentic Emotions (Part 1). On Monday I will do an update on Alex Blumberg and Gimlet Media which has been on a podcasting tear the last couple of years.

“What is a story, exactly?”
Alex Blumberg

What were you doing at 4:16 this morning? I was watching a story unfold  about a woman who married the hunk who lived next door to her in Dayton, Ohio and moved west to live the California dream.  She found her dream, but not until she went through years of despair.

“Everyone wants to find a way out of pain.”
Alex Blumberg

It wasn’t a movie, a TV show, or even a radio program, but the CreativeLive online class Power Your Podcast with Storytelling with Alex Blumberg. It was intriguing because you were able to watch how Blumberg takes a person out of the audience and shows how he would learn and tell her story for a program like This American Life (the NPR program where Blumberg was once a producer). Great stuff for anybody wanting to develop and tell better stories.

You can watch part two of the class for free today (and the rebroadcast tonight), or buy both days today for $79 (or $99 after today). I don’t recommend a lot of things to buy, but what I caught of Blumberg’s talk yesterday (and again early this morning) it’s solid material that you’ll find helpful and engaging if your storytelling is for features, TV, documentaries, radio, corporate videos, non-profit/NGO, or podcasts.

“Go where the medium lets you go.”
Alex Blumberg

He covers aspects like finding the core of the story, what hooks the audience into the narrative, what details do you need to tell, what surprises can you find, and what areas need explored. With the woman in the audience some of those areas were her dream of living in San Francisco turned into living in a suburb outside of Davis,CA. Her marriage and plans of 2.5 kids turned into a divorce and no kids. But there is a revelation and discovery on her way to finally living her California dream life—being a painter in San Francisco. If there’s a theme to her story it could be, “The road to happiness travels through many unhappy places.” (How’s that for a universal theme that would resonate with a few people worldwide?)

A few thoughts that I’ll pass on from Blumberg are his formula for nailing the thumbnail version of the story is, “This is a story about X, and it’s interesting because of Y.” When you tell people this framework for your story it must hit them at the gut level—they want to hear the story. It’s instantly intriguing.

This wasn’t an example from the workshop but I think works:”This is a story about ordinary people with the same name as famous people.” I’m flying from memory here, but I think that was the basic concept from a This American Life broadcast a few years ago. One of the ordinary people name was Willie Nelson and he lived in Texas where the more famous Mr. Nelson lived. Ordinary Willie Nelson kept voice mails left on his answering machine but obviously left for the famous Willie Nelson lived. It was an engaging program in the radio medium.

“Boredom is the enemy.”
Alex Blumberg

In telling your story look for the unexpected twists, contrasts, We like to hear about the pain, the a-ha moments, and the resolution/triumph.For true stories he looks for someone with direct experience rather than just an expert in the field.

Blumberg also said what he’s looking for when interviewing people is “authentic emotions.” Finding someone who went bankrupt because of a subprime loan they couldn’t afford to pay will tend to have more authentic emotion versus an expert on the topic. (Boots on the ground stuff, versus the view from afar.)

While it was a risk to interview an audience member in front of a live Internet audience, he certainly found “authentic emotions.”

Related post:
Finding Authentic Emotions (Part 2) 
40 Days of Emotions
Ira Glass on Storytelling
Creative Learning 2.0
Chase Jarvis—A Creative Force one of the co-founders of CreativeLive
The End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14) The California dreamer story belongs in the end of the rope club.

Scott W. Smith

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Jonathan Demme (1944-2017)

When I heard that Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme died yesterday I thought of his films, but I also remember going to hear him speak at AFI’s Director on Directing series in the 80s.

During his talk or interview he mentioned that he went to school at the University of Florida. I was around 24 years old and during the audience Q&A time I asked him about his time in Gainesville so I could try to connect with someone in L.A. with a Florida connection.

I don’t remember my exact question or his entire answer, but one thing he said that night that did stick with me— “Directors direct.”  It was to the age old question of how do you find a path to directing.

And that’s certainly easier today in the digital age then the pure film era in which he was speaking. He made some reference to production assistants (P.A.’s) not becoming directors. And while that may not be the most common path, there are directors who were once P.A.’s on at least one or two productions.

Two names that come to mind are Oscar-winner Quentin Tarantino and recent Oscar-winning Moonlight co-writer/director Barry Jenkins. So I don’t know how common it is, but it happens.  By working long hours for low pay as a P.A. there’s a lot you can pick up about how films and TV programs are shot.

Demme’s own path to the director’s chair was certainly unusual. First he dropped out of the Veterinarian program at UF after one year and began working as a movie critic in Miami. That opportunity lead him to meeting Roger Corman, which eventually led to Demme directing several low-budget features for Corman including his writer/director debut Caged Heat (1971).

At the time of the talk he was an up and coming director who was mostly known for Melvin and Howard and the doc Don’t Stop the Music with the Talking Heads.

By the time The Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991 he’d had 20 solid years of feature writing and directing, TV directing, and documentary work behind him.

One was a lesson Jodie taught me in the first of the three times we met to talk about the possibility of her playing Clarice. Jodie taught me that this is a story of a young woman trying to save the life of another young woman. Maybe it’s a thriller. Maybe it’s a horror movie, but you have to honor that core story. [production designer] Kristi Zea and [cinematographer] Tak Fujimoto and I worked so intensely together, planning what that picture was going to look like. I think we wanted to take as high a road as possible. We wanted to welcome as many moviegoers as we could, and we just didn’t see it as a splatter movie, or a gory movie, or a crazy killer movie. It was a story of this young woman. I was very concerned about turning people off, and of the idea that people would hear, ‘Oh, no, there’s a scene that’s so gross, you shouldn’t go…’ I really wanted to make sure this great story reached as many people as it was capable of. So we were trusting the imagination of viewers to set the path as much as possible.”
Jonathan Demme on making The Silence of the Lambs
Deadline

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“I find violence very disturbing on screen. I hate Tarantino’s films … I hope people will challenge this more. It’s totally unacceptable to be making such films.”
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert (speaking after the release of Django Unchained)
Evening Standard 2013

British screenwriter Guy Hibbert began working on the script for Eye in the Sky in 2008—meaning it was an eight year journey to get the script written, the film produced and released.

The movie isn’t going to set any box office records, but I can’t imagine it getting some love come award season. Hibbert has won BAFTAs: No Child of Mine, Omagh, Complicit, and Five Minutes of Heaven. In 2009, he also won the World Cinema Dramatic screenwriting award at Sundance for Five Minutes of Heaven.

Born in Oxford, England in 1950, he dropped out of school at 15,  and at age 20  started a career in theater as a stage hand and a tour manager. And he began writing plays.  In his words, “I got a couple plays put on—couldn’t make a living out of it, and then moved into television.”

There he’s been able to make a living. And fast forward a little more than 20 years since his writing career took off and I imagine you’ll hear his name mentioned come award season for his script for Eye in the Sky.

Here’s some advice (from the above interview) to writers just starting out :
“Work hard. Learn everything. And go out and experience life—as a writer you have to have a story worth telling. So you have to live your life.”
Screenwriter Guy Hibbert

Related post:
‘Eye in the Sky’
‘Art is work’—Milton Glaser

 

 

 

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