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Simply Spielberg

“I was skinny and unpopular. I was the weird, skinny kid with acne. I hate to use the word wimp, but I wasn’t in the inner loop. I never felt comfortable with myself, because I was never part of the majority.”
—Steven Spielberg on his youth

Today I did something that I haven’t done since the COVID pandemic first started in early 2020—I went to two movie in one day. Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and Aronofsky’s The Whale. For those keeping score, that’s four and a half hours of watching dysfunctional families in action. But both have plenty of humor, are exceptionally well crafted, and worthy of seeing on the big screen.

It’ll take me a while (years?) to process The Whale, but I can’t imagine Brenden Fraser not getting a lead actor Oscar nomination. And I got a kick out of one of the characters in the movie being from Waterloo, Iowa. (Waterloo is the city next to where I lived in Iowa for a decade, Cedar Falls.) But I was totally swept away by The Fabelmans. To paraphrase what David Mamet once said about plays, The movies are always dying, and always being reborn.

I saw The Fabelmans not far from where I stood in line to see E.T. back in 1982, Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, and where I saw Jaws in 1975. And not far from the home where I was living when I didn’t know who Spielberg was but was riveted by a TV movie titled Dual that featured Dennis Weaver. Spielberg directed it when he was in his early 20s.

Now he’s in his mid-70s giving us a version of his own origin story. I loved every frame of it. He’s made some of the greatest and films of cinema, including the ones previously mentioned as well as Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan. From the odd connection file, Saving Private Ryan was inspired by the Five Sullivan Brothers who all died on the same ship during WWII and just happened to be from Waterloo, Iowa.

While I’ve never met Spielberg, I do have a certificate from him for working on a project then called the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation (now the USC Shoah Foundation) that he was the founder and chairman. Back in the ’90s, I was a cameraman in Central Florida for two interviews of Holocaust survivors. One of the most memorable production experiences I’ve ever had.

For anyone who made 8mm and 16mm films back in the day there will be a tinge of nostalgia in watching The Fabelmans. For everyone else there is the joy (and heart break) of the journey of one of the greatest directors to ever made movies. And one heck of a grace note ending featuring David Lynch playing an iconic Hollywood director.

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

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Today Ohio State University and the University of Michigan football teams play against each other for the 117th time. What makes this game extra special is both teams are undefeated this season (11-0) and Ohio State is ranked #2 in the county and Michigan is ranked #3. I wish I could be in Columbus, Ohio today to watch the classic rivalry game.

Because my mom and dad met at Ohio State I was force feed watching Ohio St. and Michigan football games at an early age back in the Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler era. I remember being bored as a eight year old because neither of those coaches were known to throw the ball very much. “Three yard and a cloud of dust” was Woody Hayes strategy of grinding out wins. I wanted action—long touchdown passes.

And even though Ohio State wasn’t known for its passing game, I dreamed of playing football at Ohio State. Was it even possible for a skinny kid from Central Florida to play at Ohio State? The answer is yes—just not me. My senior year of high school I was a decent enough of a player to be named to the all-conference team. I’m #42 in the bottom right corner photo below. If you look at the top left corner you’ll see #39, Cedric Anderson who received a full scholarship to play at Ohio State. A cruel twist of fate.

And Anderson not only played at Ohio State but he actually held the record for average yard per catch in a single season for over 30 years. Ohio State has had some great wide receivers over the years including Chris Carter and Paul Warfield who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Warfield was the reason I wore #42 in high school.) But there are others: Michael Thomas, Joey Galloway, Terry McLaurin, Santino Holmes, Ted Gina, Jr. And starting today for Ohio St at wide receiver is Marvin Harrison Jr. who is regarded by some as the best receiver in the country. Ohio State’s other standout receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba had 95 catches for 1,606 yards last year.

But with all that talent, and over more than 100 years of football tradition, it’s Cedric Anderson—a kid from Apopka, Florida—who is second only to Devin Smith in the Ohio State record book. In 2014, Smith had a better average catch per season than Anderson did in 1982. (28.2 vs 27.6).

As a nice bookend to this story, I walked-on to the football team at the University of Miami and walked-off after dislocating my shoulder in practice and having it operated on. I then moved to LA to finish film school and called Anderson when he was still with Ohio State and they were playing BYU in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego and he got me tickets to the game. And if I recall correctly, he blocked a punt in that game. Anderson was also that rare athlete who was not only an all-conference football player, but also all-conference in basketball and baseball. He briefly played pro football in the USFL.

Should be a great game today. Go Buckeyes.

P.S. My second connection is my uncle, Jack Wilson, was a captain of the Ohio State football team back in the 1949 and drafted by the Detroit Lions. And a third connection is back in the 1980s I was working for Yary Photography and helped setup the team photo of the Michigan football team when they played in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. It was a little surreal to see Coach Bo Schembechler in the flesh. And lastly, I was once cast to be on camera talent for a Domino’s Pizza commercial that was shot in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I’ll never forget meeting Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan in his office (the only two story office I’ve ever been in) nor driving by the impressive Michigan Stadium—the Big Blue House where the Michigan Wolverines have played their home games since 1927.

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

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According to Wikipedia, the Mayan Theatre ”is one of the country’s three remaining theatres designed in the Art Deco Mayan Revival style.” It opened in 1930 as a large single screen movie theatre. It’s gone through a couple iterations, survived destruction, and is now both a live venue and a three screen movie theater. Tonight you can see The Shining there. (That’s fitting because the book takes place in Colorado. In fact, The Stanley hotel that inspired King to write The Shining, is just an hour and a half drive north west from the Mayan in Estes Park.)

The 1997 three episode TV version of The Shining did use The Stanley hotel, where the other Stanley (director Stanley Kubrick) shot the version starring Jack Nicholson in the Timberline Lodge in Mt Hood, Oregon. i just starting listening the the audible auto version of The Shining, and I’ll watch the TV version when I’m done listening.

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

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Warning: Despite the meteoric rise of the screenwriters into today’s post— time, talent, money and grunt work are still necessary ingredients. And as the informercials proclaim: *Results May Vary.

The Players:
The Duffer Brothers (Matt and Ross) are identical twins from Durham, North Carolina. Born in 1984 and influenced by 80s movies E.T. and Poltergeist, they began making short films on Hi8 video cameras as kids and went to film school at Chapman University in California. They made their debut feature film with the 78-minute horror thriller Hidden in 2015. In 2016 their Stranger Things series became a Netflix sensation. It looks like the fifth and final season of Stranger Things will become available some time in 2024.

Michael Waldron was born in 1987 and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia and went to Pepperdine University for his MFA in screenwriting. He worked as a writer on various TV projects and in 2022 was the sole credited writer on the Marvel hit film Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. (The $200 million film directed by Sam Raimi has made just under a billion dollars worldwide.)

So between Waldron and the writing team of The Duffer Brothers is there something we can point to help explain how some writers from the south with no film or tv connections found off the chart success in Hollywood? In the past few days I happened hear them talk about their creative journeys and I think there are a couple similarities.

Here’s an exchange between Matt and Ross from lesson 15 (”Getting to the Pitch”) from their MasterClass.

Matt: What do you do if you don’t have connections? We didn’t have connections. We were going to film school out here [in Southern California] at Chapman University in Orange County. We were close-ish to LA. We knew we needed to make connections. We knew we needed to meet people who were making stuff within the industry. And throughout the summer, even throughout the year we interned. There’s two of us—again that’s the advantage of having two people. But you can do it yourself obviously. We divided and conquered. We did every internship we could find, and we met as many people as we could. I mean it’s not the most fun thing in the world—these internships.

Ross: In our case, it was work to get college credit. And so you might ask, ’Ok, I found an internship and so what do I do? Do I just hand this brilliant script I’ve written to someone in the company and they’re going to read it and they’re going to get me an agent?’ It’s also not that simple. What you really need to do, as Matt is saying, is you got to put in the work. We made copies of scripts. We fetched coffees. I delivered presents to people. I did Christmas stuff. Some of the time I was given a fun task—‘Read this script and let me know what you think.’ And you do. And you slowly start to earn people’s trust.

One of the companies Ross worked for was Appian Way and one of his bosses was Franklin Leonard. After ”nine, ten months”—NINE, TEN MONTHS—he asked Leonard if he’d read a script of theirs. He did and liked it enough to pass it on to some agents. After some meetings that is how Matt and Ross got their agent. Ross adds, ”It’s still going to take time. It was a couple of years of interning and working before we were even able to get our script in the hand of someone who knew an agent, much less meet an agent. It is a process and it is going to take some time.”

The second success story comes from a great podcast interview of Waldron by John August at Scriptnotes (Episode 555), ”Marveling with Michael Waldron”:

Michael : I went to Pepperdine. They have a screenwriting MFA program, which was great for me. I fell under the tutelage of some really amazing mentors, a guy named Chris Chluess, who was the showrunner of Night Court for a long time, Emmy-winning writer and just a genius, and Sheryl Anderson, who’s the creator/showrunner, Sweet Magnolias on Netflix. I had some great professors. Before, I just knew how to write some jokes and some funny, stupid stuff. They really taught me how to write scripts. From there, I was fortunate enough to land an internship on the first season of Rick and Morty. That was really, really lucky. I was a huge fan of Dan Harmon, because I love Community, even when I was back in Georgia. . . . The cool thing about Pepperdine was it was very practical. It was based on just writing pilots, specs. Each semester, you were creating an original piece of work. I had that very difficult process demystified for me very early on, where I was like, ‘Okay, I know how to write a pilot and create a world.’ . . . I wrote the first draft of Heels, my show on Starz, in a class at Pepperdine. It was very, very helpful for me, because I was just finishing stuff

Through a buddy at Pepperdine he also got an opportunity to do an internship on the first season of Rick and Morty. His next opportunity was a writer’s PA on Community. He was working ”insane hours” for low pay (but getting decent overtime) doing things like getting food for the writers (lunch, dinner, snacks, coffees, and midnight snacks). He called it a nightmare, but you sense that while he was paying his dues, he also knew he was in the game. And he was learning from Dan Harmon and his team of writers.

Michael: It really was a blast, but that was a grind. I don’t know, there were like 13 writers that season. It was Season 5 of a network show, 13 or 14 writers. They had assistants. Each coffee order was a double decker, two boxes. I just remember trudging across Paramount with all that. I was getting lunches, getting meals and everything, but I asked Dan if when I wasn’t doing that, if I could sit in the writers’ room and just listen and learn. He was great, and he let me.

It took a couple of years of knowing Harmon when he felt he’d earned the opportunity to cash in some chips and ask Harmon if he’d read a pilot he’d written. (He was later hired as a producer/writer on Harmon’s Rick and Morty where he won an Emmy.) In 2015 or 2016, Paramount Television optioned Heels.  And fast forward to 2020—just ten years removed from getting his undergraduate degree at Georgia— and he spent 2 1/2 years in London working on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. And he’s attached to write a Star Wars film. What a ride!

The irony is now that Waldron is a hot Hollywood screenwriter, he is back living and working in Atlanta, Georgia where he grew up. He’s the creator the Disney+ Marvel series Loki. Which begs the question—would a 22-year-old Waldron living in Atlanta today still go the Hollywood route? Obviously, the route he took worked out well for him—as it did for The Duffer Brothers. But the landscape and economy has changed in the last 10-15 years. Heck the movie industry has changed greatly in just the last two years. The cost of living in Los Angeles has skyrocketed since the beginning of the pandemic. Film school hasn’t gotten any cheaper. And, help me out, what’s the drive from Malibu (where Pepperdine located) or Orange (where Chapman is located) take time and gas-wise to get to Hollywood or Burbank to intern on a show or with a production company? An hour, two hours one way?

The phenomenal success of The Duffer Brothers and Waldron is to be celebrated and appreciated. Learn from their tenacity, but be careful trying to duplicate those exact steps.

P.S. Let me close by crunching a few numbers.

Chapman’s website has undergraduate tuition at $30K and estimates another $11k-15K on housing, so with basic meals the full sticker price for Chapman comes in around $50K per year or $200K for four years. ($400K if your twin brother or sister goes to school with you.) Obviously, scholarships, grants, and other things can bring that cost down. At Pepperdine’s Seaver College Graduate Program their two year MFA in screenwriting degree comes in at an estimated $53,840 per year or just over $107,000. Consider the cost of any college/degree if you don’t have massive scholarships, grants, or financial support from family. But keep writing—that’s basically free.

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

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“I used to think there was a magic golden hour in which I wrote better than any other time. But that time keeps changing, so I no longer think that’s true. It used to be that I wrote the best at night. It had to be midnight. Everyone was alseep and the world felt silent. Now I wake up at 5 AM and I get a lot of writing done. But I also write well in the middle of the day at the office. What happened really is I started writing when I was wearing headphones with music blasting in my ears. Now, as long as I am wearing headphones and music blasting in my ears, I can write at any time of day, anywhere. . . . I can write in a park, I can write in the hallway outside my daughter’s pre-school . . .I can write in a doctor’s office, I can write at the airport, I can write on a sound stage. I can write anywhere because of those headphone. Because of those noise canceling headphones. I highly recommend people try it.
Shonda Rhimes
MasterClass, Lesson 11 “Writing a Script: Effective Habits”

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

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Here’s some advice for emerging TV writers from Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy):

“Get your hands on some pilot scripts. Find the show that you loved their pilot, and you thought Man, if only I could have written something like this. Get your hands on those pilot scripts—they’re easy to find now—read them, and then watch the pilots again. And then read the scripts again. And then really begin to dissect the pilots. What was the structure? How do they work? How many acts did they use? What were the page counts of each act? Why? If it’s a comedy, how many jokes did they have? How did they introduce the characters? Dissect the scripts. Dissect the pilots.”
—Shoda Rhimes
MasterClass, Lesson Two: ”Teach Yourself TV Writing”

The show that Rhimes obsessed over early in her career was The West Wing by Aaron Sorkin. Here’s the pilot script for The West Wing. And for what it’s worth, Quentin Tarantino said that he watched Sorkin’s TV show The Newsroom twice. Here’s a link to the The Newsroom pilot. Apparently all road lead to Aaron Sorkin.

P.S. Rhimes said it’s also helpful to watch a TV show you don’t like and read the script to find out why it doesn’t work.

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

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Two of my favorite films by writer/director Wolfgang Petersen are Das Boot and In the Line of Fire. But the one of his that I’ve returned two more than any others The Perfect Storm. Here’s what drew him to that story:

”The book [The Perfect Storm] is very well known. I think this is a very universal theme and it’s a basic fear people have to go out and go into an extreme situation like weather, especially out in the ocean. The ocean, I think, has had always a magic kind of thing about it. What I personally always found so fascinating is that going out– I grew up in Germany, on the north, right at the water, going out with the boats and sea. You know, the beauty of the sea. The colors and everything. It was a magical place where– where your thoughts– where you fly, where you can build your life in a wonderful way. I always loved that. At the same time, though, the weather can go like this and turn around and you face the biggest disaster you can imagine. This in a world of extremes with the water and the whole mythical aspect about the sea, I think always is interesting for people. And then, of course, fishermen, I think it was interesting to see for a change — that was for me important — for a change to not see your typical Hollywood genre film. . . . I think it was all very real. I mean, we spent a lot of time. If you think about the other risky aspect of it was to actually spend about 40 minutes of time in the beginning of the movie to really set up the whole atmosphere — Where are we here? This is Gloucester, Massachusetts. This is a small town. People don’t make much money. It’s a declining fish industry. It’s all about getting your paycheck. And then comes, you know, shall we risk this late trip again out to sea to get fish? And they decide to do it and we understand why they need the money. It’s all about money. This is not a sort of heroism because of, ‘Oh, let’s climb the mountain’ or glory and so, get sort of great stories in magazines and fame and glory. This is just to get your paycheck. I find that so fascinating that these people risk their lives every single day and so that we have our swordfish on the plate. Alone in Gloucester, 10,000 fishermen died in going out to sea, catching fish since 1623 — 10,000 in Gloucester. That’s amazing.”
Wolfgang Petersen
Interview on The Charle Rose Show

Related posts:
The Perfect Storm, the Crow’s Nest& Gloucester, MA

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

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Note: Keep in mind that this quote is from 1947 when most screenwriters and directors were men. It’s from Screen Writer Magazine. According to the archives at the University Wyoming, the magazine was started in 1945 by the Screen Writers Guild, “but the magazine was named a communist publication by the House Un-American Activities Committee and ceased publication in 1948.” (The magazine apparently was started by screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and mixed craft and political issues.)

“There is an innate, permanent, and probably necessary struggle between what the director wants to do with his camera and his actors, and what the writer wants to do with his words and his ideas. When this struggle is reconciled, you may get a great picture. When it is eliminated by having both functions performed by the same man, you are much more apt to get the highest common factor of both talents. I know there are some exceptions to this, some famous ones in fact.”
— Novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity)
The Screen Writer, July 1947
Quoted in the book Max Wilk book Schmicks with Underwoods

Part of Chicago-born Chandler’s interesting background before he became a writer was spending part of his childhood in both Croydon, England (south of London) and Plattsmouth, Nebraska. (“The Midwest would always have a peculiar significance for Chandler. It intrigued him later in life to think what might have happened to him had he and his mother stayed there.”—NY TIMES.) According to Wikipedia, he moved to Los Angeles when he was 25 and worked a variety of jobs: ”strung tennis rackets, picked fruit [and]  found steady employment with the Los Angeles Creamery.” His first professional work (Blackmailers Don’t Shoot) wasn’t published until 1933—when he was in his mid-forties.

P.S. If you know of any online links to Screen Writer Magazine please send them my way.

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

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When the great writer/director Billy Wilder (Sunset Blvd., Some Like it Hot) was asked in the above interview how one could learn screenwriting he said there are workshops and books, but there is an “element x that can’t be taught.” When asked about screenwriting structure he first talked about architecture and the need for a foundation, walls, pillars and the like as part of the ingredients. But then he said there needs to be poetry as well. I think that poetry could also be considered an x-element as well.

Last night as I moved forward with plans to launch a YouTube channel and podcast I outlined an episode based on my 2008 blog post Can Screenwriting Be Taught? Obviously, I think it can. But there is that gap between those who can do something, and those who can do it extremely well. (Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, Aaron Sorkin come to mind.)

Wilder talks about the x-element being present in acting as well. He said, there’s James Cagney and the actors who play Cagney’s friend. (In modern terms that could be what is it about Tom Cruise that sets him apart from the crowd? And allowed him to keep that appeal for so long?) At the top of any talent pyramid there are only a few people. But no one is born at the top of the pyramid. It takes years for things to fall into place. Sometimes decades. I think of actor Bryan Cranston who had a solid 25 year acting career in many “that guy” roles before his Emmy-winning breakout role as Walter White in Breaking Bad. ”I am the one who knocks!”

So what I try to do on this blog (and hope to do on the podcast/YouTube channel) is simply help people be the best writer/filmmaker/creator they can be by learning insights from people who’ve been able to do it at the highest level.

Case in point—The Apartment. Where did Wilder and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond come up with that original idea? I’m glad you ask. As he tells it, the kernel of an idea was rooted in the David Lean movie Brief Encounter (1945). A movie that won three Oscars and was based on the Noel Coward play Still Life. The story is about a guy who uses his friends apartment to have an affair.

Wilder and Diamond went sideways with that idea exploring the friend who is letting his friend use his apartment. What‘s his life like? What’s he doing while his friend is borrowing his apartment?

And from that seed grew the character C.C. Baxter played by Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960). A great film. So that’s a glimpse into how it’s done. (And if I did some digging, I imagine I could find the inspiration behind why Coward got the idea for Still Life.)

P.S. Speaking of affairs…The Hamilton soundtrack still plays regularly in my car and I never get tired of listening to Say No to This. One of the many things I love about Hamilton is it shows the consequences of one’s actions. Yet the story ends with a beautiful grace note.

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

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“I loved theater. I always loved playwriting. I always read plays. I read plays for as long as I can remember, and it was never something I imagined that I could making a living at. It was just that simple. But I loved it so much that I’d take writing workshops—never with any ambition that it would lead someplace. But I got to be around it a little bit. . . . The big surprise to me in my life is that because of what my life was and how hard it was to get a good job, that when I had a good union job [working at CBS news in New York City] I left it and took the chance of coming here [to Los Angeles]. I’m still sort of amazed that I was able to do that, because it was a solid union job.”
—Writer/producer/ director James L. Brooks (Broadcast News, The Simpsons, Taxi, Mary Tyler Moore, Terms of Endearment)
Writers on Writing (starting at 22:38 in the video below)

Brooks also wrote and directed As Good as It Gets, was a producer on Jerry Maguire, and going back to the 1960s wrote episodes for the the classic tv shows My Three Sons, That Girl, and The Andy Griffith. What a career. Not bad for a college dropout who never imagined he could be an entertainment writer.

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

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