Archive for the ‘Screenwriting & Life’ Category

Everyday’s a revolution
Pull it together and it comes undone
Just one more candle and a trip around the sun
Jimmy Buffett/Trip Around the Sun

Scott W. Smith Headshot

Today’s my birthday and it seems like as good a time as ever to reflect on an old headshot of mine taken back when I was 22 and living in Los Angeles. My acting career peaked somewhere between playing Tom in “The Glass Menagerie” and doing a Domino’s Pizza commercial. For some strange reason Tom Cruise, Michael J. Fox, and Johnny Depp got all the good roles. Oh, and Brad Pitt and George Clooney did okay for themselves, too. (Maybe that perm held me back. But more likely the only thing I had in common with those superstars was trying to get a foothold in a tough industry back in the ’80s.)

I honestly believe if I’d had half the success of the above actors I’d long be dead. Either like James Dean in a Porsche or John Belushi in Bungalow 3. Instead, after film school I carved out a little 30+ year career behind the camera and living a relatively normal life. But also thankful to have had a few Jimmy Buffett-inspired adventures traveling to all 50 states and 15+ countries working on various productions.

These days I’m producing mostly educational projects in a studio, but it’s been fun the last decade to write this blog and be an aggregator of screenwriting/filmmaking information that bridged the book centered information era that started after Syd Field wrote Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and this digital information era we’re in now.  (Still moving forward with plans to land this plane in six months at the 10 year mark. But also working on a 2.0 version of this blog.)

The film industry has been through a world of change since I started this blog in ’08, but the world still needs storytellers—and it always will. I hope you became the screenwriting equivalent of Cruise/Fox/Depp/Pitt/Clooney, but if you don’t let me encourage you with some words an acting teaching once told me, “Just because you’re not Babe Ruth, doesn’t mean you can’t play the game.”

For those of you outside the United States, Babe Ruth was one of the greatest baseball players in the history of the game. So essentially, what my acting teacher was saying was even if you don’t reach the top of the heap, you can still enjoy the game. And if you’re fortunate, you can actually have a creative career, and a life that doesn’t end in a crumpled Porsche or in Bungalow 3.

Scott W. Smith


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“I rode a school bus for an hour each way… so I had two hours a day on the bus and I tried to read a book a day.
James Cameron

They should have a special room for James Cameron over at Box Office Mojo. Titantic, which he wrote and directed, sits atop every film ever made in terms of box office gross ($600. million domestic/$ 1.8 billion worldwide). And for the last two weeks his newest film Avatar has been #1 at the box office of current films already bringing in $600 million worldwide.

And, of course, those aren’t the only films he’s ever made. Aliens, The Terminator,  Terminator 2:Judgment Day also found large audiences. But how many saw his first two films Xenogenesis and Piranha Part Two; The Spawning? It’s easy to get lost in the big numbers Cameron puts up and forget that he had to jump-start his career just like anyone else who’s made it.

So where did he come from?

Cameron was born in Kapuskasing, Ontario, Canada and raised in a town of 2,000. He was inspired by the movie 2001:A Space Odyssey and said he read The Making of 2001 book eighteen times and dreamed of Hollywood all before his family moved from Canada to Los Angeles when he was 17. And before he ever won an Oscar he drove a truck to pay the bills until his screenwriting career took off. I’ve pieced together a few of his quotes from various places to give a succinct overview of his views on filmmaking.

“The film industry is about saying ‘no’ to people, and inherently you cannot take ‘no’ for an answer…You never really ‘get’ an opportunity. You take an opportunity. You know, in the film making business no one ever gives you anything…If you wait until the right time to have a child you’ll die childless, and I think film making is very much the same thing. You just have to take the plunge and just start shooting something even if it’s bad…Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee…I think it’s, the old adage: ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’ I think chance is not a big factor in the long run…There are many talented people who haven’t fulfilled their dreams because they over thought it, or they were too cautious, and were unwilling to make the leap of faith.”
3-time Oscar winning producer/director/editor James Cameron (Titanic)

Most of these quotes were pulled from an interview found on the Academy of Achievement website.

Scott W. Smith

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“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.”
Marilyn Monroe

James Gray is a working writer/director who back in 1994 made his first feature film at age 24, and his latest film (The Lost City of Z) is hitting theater this month. But in the recent article Jame Gray and the Struggle of the Middle-Class Filmmaker he lays out the difficulties beyond student loans and getting movies made:

“You know, people assume that because I’m a director, I make tons of money. I am struggling financially. Now, I’m very lucky I get to do what it is I want to do. I’ve made, good or bad, very uncompromising movies, the movies exactly that I wanted to make, and that’s a beautiful gift, so I’m not complaining about that. But I struggle. I have a hard time paying my bills. I’m 47 years old, I live in an apartment, I can’t buy a house. If I were coming of age in 1973, I would be in Bel Air. The whole reason for this is…the middle is gone. So now you have franchises, and you have, ‘I made a movie on my iPhone.’ This is the economic system in a nutshell, right? Five directors make Marvel, and then there’s the rest of us who are trying to scrounge around to find the money to make films.”
Director James Gray (The Immigrant)
Vulture article by Kevin Lincoln (4/14/17)

P.S. The most read post I’ve ever written on this blog over the years is the 2009 post How Much Do Screenwriters Make? It’s not a perfect post, but I think it’s a fair reality check and discussion starter. By the way, if you read that post and would like to clarify how writers (and how much) working writers are paid—from Hollywood to Nollywood—shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith as I’d like to clarify the process and reality as much as I can for others.

Related Posts:
Screenwriting Quote #189 (James Gray)
‘The Immigrant’

Scott W. Smith

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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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