Archive for the ‘Screenwriters’ Category

“It’s been funny to hear, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is your first screenplay. Congratulations!’ I have a graveyard of unproduced screenplays too. Since graduating film school, it’s been nine years of grinding away, chipping away, trying to write The One. And why this one instead of the other ones? I don’t know. Most of it is just the right people reading the right script at the right time.”
Air screenwriter Alex Convery
Interview with Vulture senior reporter Chris Lee
Air Exists Because One Unemployed Guy in His 20s Saw The Last Dance

Related post: Writing Good Will Hunting

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

Read Full Post »

“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

Read Full Post »

Before writer/director Lulu Wang made an international splash this year for her movie The Farewell, one of her day jobs was producing videos for lawyers to be used in legal cases.

“I was basically going to people’s homes – you know, people who had been severely injured, people who, oftentimes, their injuries weren’t visible to the eye, you know, which meant a lot of brain damage cases. I would go into people’s homes and just interview the – you know, the client and sometimes their family to better understand the extent of their injuries.

“So we – it was called a day in a life video, and so you also would – I would include footage from before the injury occurred and – to see, you know, what they were capable of, what their dreams and aspirations were. And sometimes it would be as mundane as just shooting this person trying to make breakfast, you know, because if this client walks into a courtroom and gets on a stand, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to determine what the extent of their injuries are by just hearing them talk. You might think, well, maybe they’re not the brightest person, but, you know, they seem fine to me. But you would – if I, you know, was with them, watching them make breakfast, they would take the eggs out and then go back to the refrigerator and go grab eggs and forget where they put the eggs. You know, there’s all of these little nuances of how the – of how brain injury affects a person’s day-to-day life that I had to show.

“So there was that. I did some class action cases as well. . . . I found it very fascinating. It was very difficult, too, you know, because you meet somebody for, you know, 10 minutes, and then you’re in their home and you’re asking them to open up their lives to you. And I – you know, I was usually there by myself, maybe with one other person who was helping me set up the camera and maybe a light or something.

“But you know, there’s a lot of stories, and it – I think it also helped me to really stay grounded because no matter what fictional story I was working on, I was still doing this at the same time.”
Lulu Wang
NPR interview with Terry Gross

And in various interviews Lulu Wang has done, here are some other life experiences that show the trajectory of her career before making The Farewell. 
—She was born in China, and moved to the United States (Miami) when she was six.
—She went to a arts conservatory high school where she was a good enough pianist that her teachers thought she could have a career playing the piano, but she didn’t have enough passion for music. (New World School of the Arts in Miami is also where playwright and Oscar-winning Moonlight screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney went to high school.)
—She earned her four year degree from Boston College, where she only took one  photography class and one filmmaking class. But she did well enough in school that she was accepted into law school on a full scholarship. But she didn’t have enough passion for law to continue that route.
—She moved to Los Angeles and because she could speak Mandarin Chinese ended up doing translation work on the film Rush Hour 3.
—She made some short films, and also shot some bar mitzvah videos.
—In 2016, her story What You Don’t Know was part the radio broadcast This American Life. She got an option to write the screenplay version that eventually got produced with her directing and debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
—The film was released in the United States in July.
—Last night Awkwafina won best actress at the Gotham Awards for her lead role in The Farewell.

P.S. After graduating from NYU film school, Sean Baker (The Florida Project) worked on wedding and corporate videos, and explains why it’s good training for filmmakers.

“I was lucky enough to land a job right out of school with a small publishing company that put me in charge of their AV work. So basically I was producing a lot of corporate type videos. I was interviewing authors. Traveling all over the states just to interview them to put together a little EPK [Electronic Press Kit]. But that’s good work. It pays the bills. And I would suggest anybody who’s striving to become a filmmaker to at least stay within the AV world. Because you’re practicing on a daily basis. And even though you think this isn’t me being creative, it is. It really is because you’re still framing shots, you’re still editing, you’re understanding the technical side of things.”
Sean Baker
No Film School podcast interview

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

Read Full Post »

“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.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 11.23.54 AM.png

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



Read Full Post »

“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 

Read Full Post »

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


Read Full Post »

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 


Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

“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




Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: