Archive for the ‘Screenwriting & Life’ Category

Earlier this week I heard the first quote listed below on a Scriptnotes podcast and it didn’t take long to track down similar quotes on paying your dues that I’ve posted over the years on this blog. (And while you may see these quotes as more anecdotal than empirical data—there does appear to be a common theme. Press on.)

Eugene Mirman says this thing, because he gets approached by young comics all the time, and they say, ‘what do I do?’ And he says, ‘Start doing comedy, keep doing comedy, call me in ten years.’ And I think that applies to anything in the artistic realm. It’s like it takes a hard ten years.”
Writer/director Mike Birbiglia (Don’t Think Twice)
Scriptnotes interview with Craig Mazin

“I spent 18 years doing stand up comedy. Ten years learning, four years refining, and four years of wild success.”
Commedian/actor/writer/musician Steve Martin (The Jerk)
Born Standing Up

“A mere seven years after my graduation day, I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.”
Author J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter series)
On the Benefits of Failure

“The myth about me is that I sold my first screenplay and it’s true. But I had also worked very hard as a fiction writer for ten years and that’s how I learned the craft of telling stories.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldman (A Beautiful Mind)

“For me, it was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.”
Writer/director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption)

“Before I got adept at it, I had to write about ten scripts.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential)

Question: How did you first get your break in writing, and what were you doing before writing [the novel] Fight Club?
Chuck Palahniuk: “I worked at Freightliner for thirteen years right after college. I worked on the assembly line for several years. Then I moved into working as sort of a research mechanic, I would do repair and vehicle modification procedures and then write about them. So I worked on trucks and wrote about them.”

“I graduated from Northwestern. I had no money. No one had any money. So I got a day job, shelving books at the Northwestern University Law Library. Every morning I would work from nine to five and shelve books, for ten years. Every single day for ten years.”
Three time Oscar nominated screenwriter John Logan
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) 

“I devoted myself to writing for years without representation or a promise of anything. And there were times when I felt quite down about my prospects.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher

“I think every writer harbors—secretly or not-so-secretly—delusions of grandeur. Still, when you’re starting out, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll ever ‘succeed….The question is ‘How do you meet an agent?’ or get your script to an agent—It’s a mystery to me. Everyone sort of is able to find a different path, and usually it just comes to referrals…. I would say 99% of your effort should go to writing a good script.  And my story is a testament to that. I spent 10 years teaching myself how to write. [The Little Miss Sunshine script] went to one [agent’s] desk basically and once it hit that desk though it was like the doors were flying open.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss SunshineToy Story 3, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
2007 talk at Cody’s Books

Related links:
10,000 Hours vs. 20 Hours
Stephen King’s Double-wide Trailer
‘Art is Work’—Milton Glaser
Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcuts’
Start Small…But Start Somewhere

Scott W. Smith

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They Will Find You

“If you can dunk a basketball and hit a three point shot, and you can dominate your middle school basketball team and you live in Nebraska, they find you.”
Author Malcolm Gladwell (on those with special talent) 
Interview on The Tim Ferriss Show

This is a nice follow-up to my last post. I’m often drawn to sports
analogies and how they relate to the world of screenwriting & filmmaking.

I agree with Gladwell’s above quote that “they find you.” But that doesn’t mean—even if you have exceptional talent—that  you’ll be the next Stephen Curry or Lebron James. Or that you’ll even make it to the NBA.

Remember the Hoop Dreams documentary? It became an instant favorite of mine when it was released in 1994, and it hasn’t lost any shine since then. William Gates and  Arthur Agee are literally middle school basketball phenoms in Chicago when the movie opens.

The film directed by Steve James follows Gates and Agee through their high school careers and the ups and downs of that season of their lives. And while both got to play college basketball, neither made it to the NBA.

One more story from the sports world is over the weekend I came across a 2002 article I kept on the best high school football players in the Southeastern United States (Florida, Georgia, Alabama, etc.). College Football is big in that area and in the past fifteen years 10 of the college national football championships have been won by teams in the Southeastern region.

I’ve long forgotten what research I was doing in 2002, but I thought it would be interesting to see how many big name players were on the list almost 15 years later. Players that went on to achieve great things in college and perhaps even star in the NFL.

I’m more than a casual follower of college and pro football, but I only recognized one name; Chris Leak. He was that rare middle school talent that was actually offered a football scholarship to Wake Forest in 8th grade. In high school he led his high school team to three consecutive state championships. Three! He was named a Parade magazine All-American.

He received a scholarship to the University of Florida where in 2007 he was the starting quarterback as the Gators won the National Championship and named MVP of the championship game. (Tim Tebow, a freshman then, was Leak’s back-up quarterback.) All that to say Leak was a phenomenal athlete in high school and college.

And though he was drafted by the Chicago Bears he didn’t play a single down in a regular season NFL game. It doesn’t take away from his career—and Leak did play pro football in Canada and with the arena football league. But it does show the level of competition as you move up the food chain and arrive at the highest level in your chosen field. (Remember Leak was the only name I recognized out of the Southeastern list of top high school football players in 2002.)

Somewhere out there I imagine there’s more than one eighth grade filmmaker who is cleaning up awards at local student film festivals. They will find him or her. For everyone else with less than extraordinary off 0f the charts talent—it may take a little time.  (A writer on the documentary Showrunners spoke about how he was ready to take the world by storm after graduating from UCLA film school. He got his first real writing job when he was 33. But they found him.)

Do your writing and filmmaking thing wherever you are and see where it takes you. And strive to maximize your talent and commitment on your way to creating your best work. Do your part in helping them find you.

Related post:
The 99% Rule (A little inspiration from Oscar-winner Michael Arndt)
The Secret to Being a Successful (Seriously)  John Logan’s journey
The Myth of ‘Breaking in’ Insights by Terry Rossio
What is Talent? David Mamet weights in on how often the star of the class “lacks the capacity to continue.”

P.S. Some additional thoughts to ponder from the world of sports: Four time winning Super Bowl coach Bill Belichick began his career as a $25 per week assistant doing the grunt work of studying game films.

Update:  In a nice touch of serendipity, just a few hours after writing this post I learned at the Kartemquin Films (producers of Hoop Dreams) website that Hoop Dreams is airing tonight on WTTW Chicago as part of a year old series honoring the 50th anniversary of Kartemquin.  And tomorrow night is the #KAQ50 Birthday Party at the Harris Theater which will have in attendance William Gates, Arthur Agee, and Steve James.

Scott W.Smith 


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“I was 21, maybe I was 22 [when I began writing].  It was shortly after I graduated from college, moved to New York, got a number of survival jobs. I bartended in Broadway theaters, I dressed up as a moose and handed out leaflets. I drove a limousine, I delivered singing telegrams. I did all the kinds of things you’re going to do, because it’s unlikely that you’re going to graduate and instantly be hired to do what you dream about doing. And I would only urge you — and I know this is a lot easier said than done — but I would only urge you to get on the bottom rung of a ladder you want to climb, and not the middle of a ladder you don’t care about.

“Or even the second rung of a ladder you don’t care about. Get on the bottom of a ladder you want to climb, and that really hard work you’re doing for no money is not going to seem quite so hard. You’re going to have a hard time paying your bills, it’s going to be a hard life, everything is going to be hard, but there’s going to be something fun about it. Your soul is going to feel good. You’re going to like yourself. And work hard and you’ll get to the second rung, the third, the fourth, and fifth.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)
The Hollywood Reporter interview with Stephen Galloway


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“If you’re going to play music or do any art form, just as a hobby or as purely a source of enjoyment, then yeah, you should enjoy it. But I do believe in pushing yourself. If you actually take the idea of practice seriously—to me, practice should not be about enjoyment. Some people think of practice as ‘You do what you’re good at, and that’s naturally fun.’ True practice is actually about just doing what you’re bad at, and working on it, and that’s not fun. Practice is about beating your head against the wall. So if you’re actually serious about getting better at something, there’s always going to be an aspect of it that’s not fun, or not enjoyable. If every single thing is enjoyable, then you’re not pushing yourself hard enough.”
29-year-old Oscar-nominated screenwriter Damien Chazell (Whiplash)
Dissolve interview with Tasha Robinson

P.S. This is my second post of the day to set-up my 2,000th post tomorrow—on the seventh anniversary of this blog. Don’t know if it’ll be as epic as I wanted it to be, but I at least wanted to stay on track.

Scott W. Smith

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“I attempted to write my first novel when I was twenty-four. Bagger Vance[my first published book] came out when I was fifty-one.

“Twenty-seven years is a long time to labor without success. Can you imagine how many times I was taken aside by spouse, lovers, family, and friends and given ‘the talk?’ Can you imagine how many times I gave it to myself?”
Steve Pressfield (The Legend of Bagger Vance)
My Overnight Success

There’s no guarantee that if you plug way at writing for basically three decades that you’ll eventually not only become a published author, but  also see your first published book turned into a movie starring Will Smith, Matt Damon, Chalize Theron and directed by Robert Redford—but it’s nice to point out when it happens.

In his post Pressfield expands on his “nearly three-decade odyssey” by offering some nuggets like:
1. It’s hard.
2. You gotta be a little crazy.
3. It’s worth it. 

But he also says that it wasn’t all wilderness;

“Within those twenty-seven years, I earned a living for at least a dozen as a professional writer. I worked in advertising. I had a career as a screenwriter. And I spent six years writing unpublishable novels (which counts as work too.)

“In other words the process, although it had many crazy and desperate years, was simply one of relentless, diligent labor and self-education. I was failing. But I was learning. By the time, twenty-seven years in, when I sat down to write The Legend of Bagger Vance, I was a seasoned pro who understood the principles of storytelling, who possessed abundant self-discipline, and who had had enough success in related fields to tackle this particular enterprise with confidence.”
Steve Pressfield

Check out the full My Overnight Success article as well as his book The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Winn Your Innner Creative Battles. 

Happy New Year.

Related posts:
Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcuts’
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Tennessee Williams on ‘Apparent failure’
‘Failure is an Option’
Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Overnight Success“It doesn’t seem that long ago I had hopes of being the hot kid, selling my first story in ’51 when I was 25. I got on the cover of Newsweek in April 1985, and was seen as an overnight success after little more than thirty years.”—Elmore Leonard
Spectacular Failures 

P.S. Countdown to 2000th special post on January 22, 2015—11 posts

Scott W. Smith




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“A lot of people think I had such a rosy career, but I wanted to identify that one of the things that helps you have a long career is learning how to deal with adversity, how to get past it.”
19-time All-Star baseball player Cal Ripken, Jr.

“I hated my father long before I knew there was a word for hate…I remember hating him even when I was in diapers.”
Pat Conroy

My father died on this date 19 years ago. September 6, 1995. It was the same night that baseball great Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record of consecutive games played—an event that fans on a MLB.com poll voted as the league’s most memorable moment.

It was the following morning as I prepared to direct a three camera video shoot I learned that my father was dead. But September 6 will always be a landmark day in my life. In some ways my father (who divorced my mother and moved away when I was seven) was a bit player in my life, but his shadow is always nearby. He had an interesting life as a drummer, a steel worker before he graduated from Ohio State, an Air Force pilot, and as an advertising executive. There aren’t many photos of him in my family photo album, but he bought me my first camera that set me on the creative path I’ve been walking since I was 18 years old.

Cal Ripken Jr. probably isn’t a perfect father, but the Hall-of-Fame player who has been heavily involved in charity work since his retirement from playing seems the ideal kind of guy any son or daughter would want to have as a father.  The kind of guy who would teach you how to ride a bike, help you with your homework, and pass on pearls of wisdom at various times of adversity in your life. Complete with a family photo album full of pleasant memories.

Kind of the opposite of novelist Pat Conroy’s father. But Conroy’s own rosy literary career owes a debt to the adversity that his father brought into his life.

“I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years. My own stormy autobiography has been my theme, my dilemma, my obsession, and the fly-by-night dread I bring to the art of fiction. Through the years, I’ve met many writers who tell me with great pride that they consider autobiographical fiction as occupying a lower house in the literary canon. They make sure I know their imagination soar into realms and fragments completely invented by them. No man or woman in their pantheon of family or acquaintances has ever taken a curtain call in their own well-wrought and shapely books. Only rarely have I drifted far from the bed I was conceived. It is both the wound and foundation of my work.”
Pat Conroy
The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son

Chances are your own father falls somewhere between they guy who once told me, “The memories of my father could be written on the back of a postage stamp,” and Ward Cleaver on the classic TV show “Leave it to Beaver.”

And the odds are good that you’ve had your share of adversity in your life. But I hope you’ve overcome them—or are in the process of overcoming them—and somehow can use those experiences for fuel in your writings.

Simple words can become clever phrases 
And chapters could turn into books
If I could just get in on paper
But it’s harder that it ever looks
If I Could Just Get It on Paper
Lyrics by Jimmy Buffett

P.S. Here’s a video of Cal Ripken Jr. in one of his philanthropic ventures as he helps rebuild communities via working with Habitat for Humanity.

Related posts:
Emotional Autobiography (2.0) When you’re going through a period of unhappiness, a broken love affair, the death of someone you love, or some other disorder in your life, then you have no refuge but writing.”—Tennessee Williams
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter “Decades spent writing and teaching have taught me that writers’ own personal stories are the only story they should write.”—Richard Walter

Scott W. Smith

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“Here’s a secret I have learned in 20 years as a screenwriter. Failure is constant for everyone. And I mean it, everybody fails at this all the time. Not just screenwriters, but I think anyone who tries to illuminate the human experience in an authentic way…I think everyone has the permission to fail a little. In fact I think that freefalling feeling you get right on the knife edge of total disaster may in fact be an essential ingredient to doing anything worthwhile at all. So the question then is: How do you reel yourself back from failure in a public way? How do you fall on the right side of that knife edge? And I guess what you need is a little bit of wisdom and honesty to look at something you’ve written that feels false, or boring or derivative, or in poor taste, or bullshitty, or inauthentic to you, and just plain not good enough. And say to yourself ‘I bet I can do better’.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)
2013 BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series

Related post:

Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Filmmaking Baby Steps “It’s  all baby steps. One foot in front of the other.”—Sidney Lumet
Commitment in the Face of Failure —Michael Arndt quote
‘The Lord of the Rings’ Failure
Spectacular Failures
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

Scott W. Smith

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