Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

John Madden (1936-2021)


Here’s a reworking of a post I wrote back in 2016 when ESPN Films premired doc The 85 Bears celebrating the Chicago Bears Super Bowl XX winning football team coached by John Madden. With Madden’s passing yesterday, I thought I’d post a photo I took of he and the QB of ’85 Bears, Jim McMahon. Madden (former player, a coach who never had a losing season, a top broadcaster, and perhaps now best known as the name behind EA Sports video game Madden NFL).

In the photo above the two were gathered with many other professional football players for a celebrity golf tournament in San Luis Obispo, California. I was working back then as a photographer for Yary Photo which was co-owned by Wayne Yary and his brother Ron Yary—who was a Pro Football Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman with the Minnesota Vikings. (Ron also played in four Super Bowls.)

It made me think of some other shoots I did with some football greats and they include a video shoot in Dallas with Deion Sanders, a 16mm film shoot in Calabasas, California with Eric Dickerson, and Reggie White in Tampa, Florida. All Pro Football Hall of Fame members. And back when I was a 19-year-old small town journalist, I interviewed Doug Williams who went on to become the Super Bowl XXII MVP.

Good Memories. Looking forward to the Super Bowl 50 game today.

Related post:
Screenwriting & the Super Bowl

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

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This December has been unusually crazy for me this year resulting in I think the fewest posts in a single month since I began blogging back in 2008. But here are three photos that sum up thus crazy Christmas season.

I took the photo of the old movie theater this week in Tucumcari, New Mexico, just off Route 66.

The second photo was taken Christmas eve in Durango, Colorado just after the bookstore closed and the trailer used for gift wrapping was hauled away.

The third photo was taken today somewhere near Lizard Head Pass near Telluride, Colorado. It was a blue sky day, but one the scariest drives of my life. (Ice and snow patches, lots of twists and turns on a mountain road that peaks at 10,000 feet.) And also one of the most beautiful drives of my life.

Wishing you much peace and grace during this holiday season.

Merry Christmas


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Today I came across an Every Frame a Painting visual essay on Buster Keaton that I first saw back in 2015, and I wondered what Tony Zhou was up to these days. Good timing, too. Just found out that he had a hand in VOIR, a series of essays on cinema. It will be shown on Netflix and the trailer for it just dropped today. David Fincher and David Prior are executive producers and it will debut on December 6. Looking forward to it.

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

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“I wanted to create something that would resonate not just for Korean people but globally. This was my dream.”
Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk

“Unbeknownst to many outside the Midwest, over the past 15 years Des Moines has transformed into one of the richest, most vibrant, and, yes, hip cities in the country, where the local arts scene, entrepreneurial startups and established corporate employers are all thriving.”
Colin Woodward, Politico Magazine in 2016
How America’s Dullest City Got Cool

“Will they love it in Des Moines?” was one of the comments Rod Serling made when talking to students about writing at Ithaca College back in 1972. It was a twist on the old phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” in regards to how well a movie or television (or play) would be received by an audiences outside of New York or Los Angeles.

Places like Des Moines, Iowa and Peoria, Illinois are seen as representing the middle of the country (or the middle of nowhere depending on your perspective). And as someone who started a blog in 2008 titled Screenwriting from Iowa …and Other Unlikely Places, I have long had an affinity for those places outside the cultural hot spots. (I’m even writing a spec TV pilot this month set in Des Moines.)

When I heard Serling’s above Des Moines quote it made me think of something director Steven Speilberg said to Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show way back in 1999.

“I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”
—Steven Spielberg

I thought of that Spielberg quote a couple of weeks ago when Netflix announced that its most viewed original program of all time was Squid Game. The nine-part series was written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk and shot in South Korea. Home base for the production was the town of Daejeon. It’s at city of 1.5 million people, but still an unlikely places for a global phenomenon to originate. In the first month of its release (according to Netflix’s metrics) it had reached 111 million viewers. (And as a side note, Dong-hyuk was born in Seoul, Korea but also has an MFA from USC film school.)

One way to contrast Dong-hyuk and Serling is to look at their lives at age 50. Dong-hyuk is at the peak of his career now at 50, and at age 50 Serling died a legend. (Serling was said to smoke up to four packs of cigarettes a day. As Stephen King has said, smoking can fuel your brain—but it’s killing you at the same time.) But man, Serling packed in a lot in 50 years. Here’s a sweeping overview.

1943—Graduated from Binghamton Central High and joined the U.S. Army the next day.

1944—Saw combat in the South Pacific. Seeing death on a daily basis shaped his life and writing. According the Wikipedia, Serling was awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Philippine Liberation Medal.

1950—After the war he got a BA degree in Literature from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He also worked for the college radio station writing and directing programs. After graduating he worked for WLW radio in Cincinnati. He then moved to television working for WKRC also in Cincinnati. While writing things like fake testimonials on his day job, he also submitted radio and Tv dramas on a freelance basis. Sometimes getting rejected and sometimes getting produced.

1953—Now married and his first child on the way he quit his day job in Ohio and moved to Connecticut. (Now or never?) He found work writing for Kraft Television Theatre and the next year moved to New York City.

1955—TV was in its infant stages in the 1950s and Serling wrote the script for Patterns. The show was performed live in 1955 and then shot on tape in 1956.

1956— Serling cranked out script after script for General Electric Theater, Playhouse 90, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse through the 1950s. His amazing run from 1959 to 1964 included not only creating and writing 71 episodes of The Twilight Zone, but also writing the teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight. First performed in 1956, Requiem became a feature in the US in 1962, and British, Dutch, and Yugoslav versions were later produced. It also made its way to Broadway in 1985.

The well runs deep with Serling. But it is The Twilight Zone for which Serling is best known. A show that was not immensely popular in its day, and Serling tired of always fighting corporate censorship. But back in 1959 (just ten years out of college) he put on his old salesman hat and did his best to find sponsors for the unusual show.

Throughout the ’60s and until his death in 1975 Serling continued to write, but he also found time to teach. He had a home in Ithaca, New York and taught at Ithaca College from 1967—1975. The Rod Serling Archives (and I believe some of his Emmys) are at Ithaca College.

Back in June, after stops in Binghamton and Cooperstown, New York I visited Ithaca. It sits on the southern end of Cayuga Lake in the Finger Lakes region of Central New York and is also home to Cornell University.

Serling not only knew how to write scripts that would play in Des Moines, but he wrote scripts that would be relevant long after he was dead.

P.S. The Twilight Zone script “To Serve Man by Rod Serling .”

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

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“Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.”
—Six-time Primetime Emmy winner Rod Serling

The day before I visited the National Baseball Museum in Cooperstown, NY, I got to make a brief pilgrimage to another destination I’d long wanted to visit. Binghamton is about an hour and a half drive south west of Cooperstown and is where The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling grew up.

The Twilight Zone is one of my all time favorite TV programs so I went out of my way to make a brief stop there. Though the famed TV show began airing before I was born, it’s just one of those rare programs that resonates deep with me. (Northern Exposure would be another.)

Serling said that one of his personal favorites from The Twilight Zone was Walking Distance that first aired in 1959. It’s the story of a Don Draper advertising type fellow who wanders into his childhood town only to be transported back in time. (And one that features child actor Ron Howard.)

The Walking Distance episode also features a carousel as a set piece. While I think they shot the episode in California, Binghamton calls itself the “Carousel Capital of the World” with six in town. So it’s not a stretch to think Serling tapped into his youth when writing this episode. I stopped at Ross Park to see that carousel that’s been there since 1920. Since Serling was born in 1924 (and this one his next to the Binghamton Zoo) there is a good chance Serling rode this carousel.

No one was riding the historic carousel the day I arrived because it was broken. But the guys working on the repairs were kind enough to let me come in and take some photos. So here’s a snapshot of my stop in The Twilight Zone.

P.S. Serling went to college at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio just north of Dayton. Comedian Dave Chappelle’s father taught at Antioch which is how Dave ended up living in rural Ohio to this day. (How often can you fit Serling, Chappelle, and Ron Howard in one post? Think it’s a first for me.)

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

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“The [MLB] draft has never been anything but a f—ing crapshoot. We take fifty guys and we celebrate if two of them make it. In what business is two for fifty a success? If you did that in the stock market, you’d go broke.”
—Billy Beane as quoted in Moneyball by Michael Lewis

“Rules are what makes art beautiful. Rules are what makes sports beautiful.”
—Aaron Sorkin

It’s Major League Baseball playoff time, so I’m going to use a little baseball inspiration to jump start getting back into blogging on a regular basis starting today.

Many years ago I was on a softball team when one night I saw the single best display of talent I’d ever seen in a softball player before or since. This guy hit three home runs batting right handed, then in his last at bat switched to hitting left handed and hit another home run. Like a mystical character he only played one game and I never saw him again. And now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever saw in professional or amateur level baseball player display such a dominant display of power.

But here’s the thing—he didn’t play professional baseball. I heard he peaked playing baseball at the University of Miami. (UM baseball teams have made 25 College World Series appearances, winning national titles four times.) Talent is funny that way. One can be at the pinnacle of success on one level and then be a bust at the next level. (Which explains why so many Heisman Trophy winners in college football have limited success in the NFL.)

The book and movie Moneyball explore the theme of how professional scouts and teams have a so-so record when it comes to knowing which athlete is going to be a star. (The first chapter of that book is titled “The Curse of Talent.”) That’s true in professional football as well—which explains why the most winning Super Bowl QB in history wasn’t drafted until the 6th round in 2000. Looking back, it’s bewildering to think that 198 players were picked ahead of Tom Brady.

But talent is tricky. And it’s funny.

Think back to Aaron Sorkin working odd jobs out of college (bartender, limo driver, singing telegrams) and being an actor in a traveling theater group doing plays for children.

“When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I traveled the South with a touring children’s theater company called The Traveling Playhouse. When I say the South, we weren’t playing in Atlanta, we were playing Jasper, Alabama. We’d do six or seven shows in elementary school gymnasiums at about ten o’clock in the morning, then pile into a station wagon, and a van carrying the costumes and sets. We did The Wizard of OzRip Van Winkle, and Greensleeves. We were paid thirty dollars a performance.”
Aaron Sorkin
Zen and the Art of Screenwriting
Interview with William Froug
Page 31

Would you have picked that guy on your team in 1983—back when he hadn’t even tried writing. Who knew he was going to be the Tom Brady of contemporary dramatic writers? He’s excelled in theater (A Few Good Men), in TV (The West Wing), and in features (The Social Network). And, like Brady, he’s still in winning form. Sorkin wrote and directed the upcoming film Being the Richardos, which Lucille Ball’s daughter, Desi Arnaz, says is “friggin’ amazing.”

Here’s a few takeaways from Sorkin’s career.

  1. He wanted to be an actor but failed, so he pivoted to becoming one of the greatest living drama writers today.
  2. I believe “Swing with your strength” is a phrase borrowed from the world of baseball. Pete Rose was a singles hitter so he just did that and accrued more hits that anyone in MLB. Sorkin’s strength is writing snappy and memorable dialogue. Rapid banter that has a winning tradition way back to vaudeville, through I Love Lucy, right up to today’s sitcoms. While film is a visual medium, and much emphasis is made on show don’t tell, Sorkin still excels in the strength of his words.
  3. He stays in his lane of writing drama. Usually drama in the workplace. You don’t see him writing super hero movies or family sitcoms. Four of his stories have been military/government related, and four of his stories revolve around TV production, so even his workplace interests are limited.

While there is God given talent, I believe that whatever talent you have can be sharpened over time. (Heck, even Tom Brady was once the 7th string quarterback his freshman year at the University of Michigan.) So here are several Sorkin-related posts from over the years that I hope you on your own writing journey. I’ll start with one of my favorites where he talks about the need to have “intentions and obstacles” in place before he stars writing. (That concept made it into my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles.)

Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles

Screenwriting vs. Finger Painting (Aaron Sorkin on the Rules of Art)

Aaron Sorkin on ‘90% of the Battle’ in Screenwriting

Aaron Sorkin on Launching a Screenwriting Career* (*Results may vary)

Screenwriter Support with Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin on ‘Steve Jobs’ and Screenwriting vs. Journalism

Screenwriting Quote #197 Aaron Sorkin)

Dialogue as Music

Aaron Sorkin in Jasper, Alabama

The West Wing, BMWs & Iowa

Aaron Sorkin on Good vs. Great

Professor Aaron Sorkin

Sorkin on Revealing Character

Aaron Sorkin on Failure

Movie Cloning (Aaron Sorkin)

Sorkin’s Emotional Drive

And I’ll end this post with another dramatic writer who has also excelled in theater, TV, and features from a 2010 post I wrote called What is Talent?

“I am not sure what talent is. I have seen moments, and performances, of genius in folks I had dismissed as hacks. I’ve watched students of my own and of others persevere year after year when everyone but themselves knew their efforts were a pitiful waste, and have seen these people blossom into superb actors. And, time and again, I saw the Star of the Class, the Observed of all Observers, move into the greater world and lack the capacity to continue. I don’t know what talent is, and frankly I don’t care.

A common sign in a boxing gym: BOXERS ARE ORDINARY MEN WITH EXTRAORDINARY DETERMINATION. I would rather be able to consider myself in that way than to consider myself one of the ‘talented’; and—if I may—I think you would, too.”
David Mamet
True and False

P.S. I think Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network is the best script written in the last 20 years. And the film that I’ve returned to the most during this pandemic is Moneyball which Sorkin created as writing with Steve Zaillian based on a book by Michael Lewis. A lot of talent came together to make those two films.

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

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Note: My goal at the beginning of the summer was to launch a podcast that has yet to happen. In fact, 2021 has proven to be the most difficult for me in just keeping up with writing blog posts. So for this post on talent, I’ve decided to reach back into past posts to grab some quotes to carve out a post today. I may do more of that in the coming days, weeks, and months. It’s been unusually hard to focus this month on writing because of various circumstances. At the moment, my brother in law is on week two of being in the hospital with COVID and the next day or two will be the most crucial. Who would have guessed in January 2020, the severe changes that were about to impact the world?

“I’ve never viewed myself as particularly talented. I’ve viewed myself as…slightly  above average in talent…Where I excel is with (a) ridiculous, sickening work ethic. While the other guy’s sleeping, I’m working. While the other guy’s eating, I’m working.”
Two time Oscar-nominated actor Will Smith (and 4-time Grammy winner)
60 Minutes Interview

“I am not sure what talent is. I have seen moments, and performances, of genius in folks I had dismissed as hacks. I’ve watched students of my own and of others persevere year after year when everyone but themselves knew their efforts were a pitiful waste, and have seen these people blossom into superb actors. And, time and again, I saw the Star of the Class, the Observed of all Observers, move into the greater world and lack the capacity to continue. I don’t know what talent is, and frankly I don’t care.

A common sign in a boxing gym: BOXERS ARE ORDINARY MEN WITH EXTRAORDINARY DETERMINATION. I would rather be able to consider myself in that way than to consider myself one of the ‘talented’; and—if I may—I think you would, too.”
Playwright and screenwriter David Mamet
True and False

“I graduated from Oberlin College in fifty-two, did the Army for two years, then went to graduate school at Columbia University for two years. It was then the summer of 1956. I was twenty-four, and I’d always wanted to be a writer. I’d shown no signs of talent. I got the worst grades in class.”
—William Goldman
Shoptalk by Dennis Brown
(Aaron Sorkin called Goldman “the dean of American screenwriting”)

I don’t particularly like [the writing process], but I don’t dislike it either. I can tell you that I’ve come to a somber acceptance that…my tastes as a consumer of movies and TV exceeds my talents, so all I can do is try my best to close that gap and to get as best a version of what it is in my head on the page.”
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Arrival)
Basic Brainheart podcast interview with Hannah Camacho

“Mastery is in the reaching, not the arriving. It’s in constantly wanting to close that gap between where you are and where you want to be. Mastery is about sacrificing for your craft and not for the sake of crafting your career.”
Sarah Lewis 

“Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”
International best-selling author Ann PatchettThe Getaway Car (in the collection of essays book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage)

”I’m a fast typer but I’m slow at ideas. Most of my scripts have taken probably about seven years between writing and getting made.”
—Oscar winning screenwriter Taika Waititi (JoJo Rabbit)

“If you’re looking for an excuse, you’ll find one.”
Actor/Director Denzel Washington 
60 Minutes interview December 18, 2016

“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)

“You know, when you first start writing you’re going to suck. And so it’s good to keep it to yourself, until maybe you don’t suck as much.”
David Sedaris

“It took years of struggle. Years of not having anything happen, not even getting meetings, not knowing what I was really doing…Things have turned a corner.  I was really a starving artist for lot of years.  I moved to LA nine years ago, and the first five were really difficult.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Luke Davies (Lion)
Combined from PopEntertainment interview & Spook Magazine article

“No one was interested in my stuff at all. What actually got me going as far as a writing career was concerned—I’d never had any success ever and finally I met a really good buddy of mine, his name is Scotty Spiegel —he wrote Evil Dead 2. He’d just sold a big script. It was a big deal. He was involved in low budget horror films and stuff, so all his friends started calling up say, hey, would you do a re-write on my stuff? And he was like, well I can’t, I’m busy. But I have a friend of mine named Quentin maybe you should give him a call.
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

“There are two rules that I always adhere to. And that is to work hard and be brave. And I think the essence of hard work is one that’s pretty straightforward. You’ll never be the best looking, you’ll never be the tallest, the most talented, most capable, you’ll never have the most money—there will always be someone better at whatever you’re doing than you are. But you can always be the hardest working person in the room.”
Filmmaker Casey Neistat

“I think the most important thing you have to know is that it’s a very, very hard business, full of rejection and setbacks. If you don’t want to succeed really badly, you won’t. But, of course, if you get a movie made and it works, there’s nothing like it. Nothing.”
—Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally/Julie & Julia)
Tales from the Script
page 269

I’ll add more to this list as I find them—but this is a pretty good start.

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

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Wearing baseball hats has been a staple throughout my career working in production. And the trend started way before I ever picked up a camera back when I started playing Little League baseball as a kid. (More on that tomorrow as I continue a thread of posts centered around my recent visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.)

The first baseball hat I fell in love with was the San Francisco Giants. Back in 1969-1970 the trio of Giants I enjoyed watching play were Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, and Willie Mays. Long before I developed any kind of design aesthetic, I was drawn to the simplicity of the black hat with orange “SF” letters. (The orange is RGB 241/91/40 for those keeping score.)

I was reminded of that at the Hall of Fame when I saw the 1970 Topps baseball poster of McCovey (pictured below). I had that fold out mini-poster as a kid and may still have in a file somewhere. Though I eventually became a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, I wore a Boston Red Sox hat to Cooperstown (photographed here with statues of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams—who both played for the Red Sox).

I wear many different hats because they remind me of teams, players, cities, friends and experiences. I did a quick scan of photos over the years where I wear a wide assortment of hats. Here’s a few of them with some snapshot stories.

At the Hall of Fame with statues of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. (Seeing a Boston Red Sox game in Fenway Park is one of my favorite baseball memories.)
BERC hat which stood for Broadcast Equipment Rental Company. I was a driver for them in film school when they were located in Hollywood near the classic Cinerama Dome. Cool gig that first got me on studio lots when I was 21.

Film school class in LA during the Fernandomania era when the Dodger’s Fernando Valenzuela became the only player to win Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award in the same season
Cincinnati Reds hat on shoot in Chicago
Documentary shoot in Samaria, Russia

New York City shoot overlooking Hoboken, NJ (where they shot “On the Waterfront”)

Setting up LA Raiders photo shoot when they trained in El Segundo, CA. (Not far from Compton.)
Photo shoot in Pasadena, California before UCLA played in the 1984 Rose Bowl. The football scenes from classic Harold Lloyd film The Freshman (1925) were shot in the Rose Bowl.

And in the summer of ‘84 I stopped in beautiful Jackson Hole, Wyoming on a cross country trip. Shane was shot in Jackson Hole.

Paramount Studios hat somewhere in Southern California with my photographer friend Alex
Rockin’ a Nikon D70 cap for a Speed Channel shoot in Iowa around 2005
Kingston, Jamaica in 2008
Directing short film at artist/filmmaker Paco Raque Rosic’s (@pacorosic) studio
Minnesota Twins hat during Disney World shoot in 2013. (I used to watch the Twins play spring training games in Orlando.) Watching Rod Carew bunt during batting practice was poetry.
I even wear a baseball hat when I’m not working
Glacier National Park in Montana (2019)
Production COVID-style in 2020. Mickey Mouse design on side of hat reminds me of the great quote by Walt Disney, “Never forget that it all started with a mouse.” Before Disney created Mickey Mouse he grew up in the small town of Marceline Missouri and had a nervous breakdown in Kansas City when his studio struggled to be profitable. Steps along the way to being the person with the most Academy Awards in history (22).

P.S. Over the years baseball hats have been staples for male and female writers and directors probably because it makes worrying about your hair one less thing to worry about. (And they comes in handy for sun protection on location shoots for those of us who have less hair than we used to.) But for me, it’s all rooted in my love of baseball.

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

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“He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.”
—A description of the vengeance of Ahab in ”Moby Dick” written by Herman Melville
(Something Gregory Peck conveyed well as Ahab in the movie version.)

Here’s my breakdown of John Huston’s Moby Dick (from the screenplay by Ray Bradbury and Huston, and based on Herman Melville’s novel). Keep in mind that this came out in 1956, the same year as Giant (with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean) and The Searchers (with John Wayne), and three years before Ben Hur (with Charlton Heston). Back when free TV was starting to make inroads into American homes. Hollywood responded with giant spectacles to separate themselves from the small screen.

Opening image: A young man walking through the countryside carrying a backpack. Very similar to the opening of First Blood with John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) wandering the countryside.

Moby Dick opening
First Blood opening

Act 1: A young man named Ishmael arrives in New Bedford, Massachusetts, looking to have a great adventure on a whaling ship. This is set up in the first five minutes. Being an outsider and to new town, he’s told he needs permission from the locals in a pub. At the 6-minute mark Captain Ahab is introduced in passing. Ishmael is accepted by the whalers. That night he uncomfortably shares a room—even a bed—with a cannibal named Queequeg. He goes to church and hears a sermon about Jonah. He and Queequeg join captain Ahab’s ship. The ship is loaded with provisions. They hear a strange prophesy from a man on the docks who says his name Elijah. They set off for what is intended to be a three year voyage. The women of the town watch as the large ship named Pequod leaves port.

Act one ends on a wide shot of the ship heading out to sea and fades to black at 29:36.

Act 2: Life aboard the ship. VO narration explaining that the crew who came from the ends of the earth. Introduction of other key characters (Pip, Starbuck, Stubbs). The crew scrubs the decks. We see the blacksmith, harpooners, and a carpenter. No sign of Captain Ahab but we hear his peg leg walking the deck at night while others sleep. He’s a mysterious man. One who lost his leg hunting the white whale.

At 35 minutes Ahab addresses the crew and says they are to “look for the white whale.” He nails a Spanish gold ounce doubloon to a mast saying whoever first spots the white whale gets the coin. It’s obvious that this is an obsession for Ahab, and he works the crew into a frenzy to hunt Moby Dick to the death.

The crew later dumps some exposition about the dangers of whaling and the legacy of Moby Dick. “Are you trying to scare us?” That discussion is interrupted by the cry “Thar she blows” as a whale is spotted at the 41-minute mark. At this point, the movie shifts over to documentary-style shooting for the sequence of how a whaling ship operates in full gear as they hunt, capture, and then cut and boil the whale blubber into oil that will eventually keep “lights burning in a thousand homes.” When done they cast the whale bones into the sea and have a grand celebration with drinking, music, and dancing. It’s one of the best sequences in the film and last about 6 minutes.

But Ahab does not participate in the celebrations, instead, he is studying his maps and charts for when he has the best chance to find the white whale. He gets some push back from Starbuck who says he came to hunt whales, not to partake in one man’s vengeance. Ahab says the crew is behind him. Starbuck senses impending doom.

They sail around the Cape Horn far from home, and Ishmael gets his chance to climb up the spotter’s area high above the boat. He’s having the great adventure he was hoping to find— “Removed from the cares of all the people of the land.” Finally he gets to chance the yell, “Thar she blows.” But what’s different about this spotting is it’s not just one whale, but many. The crew jumps again to action and they capture whale after whale.

It appears to be a great success, but Ahab seems less thrilled. A fellow ship comes along the Pequod and the Captain ends up telling Ahab that he spotted the white whale a month ago—off the Cape of Good Hope heading to Madagascar. This causes Ahab to call off the hunt and to set sail at the 61-minute mark. The crew can’t believe they would leave such a grand harvest. They see no reason. Ahab says, “I give no reasons Mr. Stubbs, I give orders.” They cut their lines to the whales and set sale.

A debate is started with some of the crew whether Ahab is mad. Will a mutiny take place? Starbuck says that Ahab is “a champion of darkness.” Starbuck’s concerns are overruled by the others. Later they get to the waters where Ahab thinks he will meet Moby Dick and he rejuvenates the crew to look for the white whale and earn the gold.

Things take a turn for the worst when a man falls overboard and the can’t save him. Then the sea becomes calm and the wind still leaving them dead in the water for the time being. Dullness sets in. It’s the opposite of a great adventure. One of the crew thinks they are cursed.

The cannibal Queequeg tosses bones “which tell everything” and it’s like a spell comes over him and he says “goodbye” and asked that the carpenter to make a casket his size that floats. There’s an impending doom of some sorts. Then someone shouts “Thar she blows” and Ahab looks out to see Moby Dick at the 79-minute mark.

They put boats in the water despite it being nighttime, but the whale goes underwater. He breaches the water and appears to swim away. False hope. There is no wind, so the crew of the Pequad will have to row to pick up the wind. As they row until exhaustion, Ahab becomes more tyrannical. They do pick up the wind and Ahab gives the gold doubloon to the one who first spotted the white white.

Ahab takes the occasion with the crew gather to double down on his quest. He tells them that when they capture Mody Dick that they will split his share, “My 10% of this entire voyage.” This pep talk works, and they shout out cheers at the prospects.

At 85-minutes a fellow ship out of New Bedford passes them. Ahab shouts out asking if they’ve seen the white whale. They say they have just 10 miles away. It turns out that the captain lost his 12-year-old son in an accident at sea and asks Ahab to help search for him. Ahab replies that he won’t help as he seeks the white whale. No time to waste. Later Ahab pledges “death to Moby Dick” and the screen fades to black at the end of Act 2 at the 89-minute mark, leaving the last 26 minutes for the third act.

ACT 3:

In pursuit of Moby Dick, a mighty storm kicks up and instead of playing in safe by lower the sails, Ahab calls for full sails to be out risking the crew’s life as the men hold on from being swept away. With all hands on deck, the waves crash over the boat. When one on the crew attempts to cut the sail, Ahab threatens to run him through with a harpoon. That’s when the mysterious lights of Saint Elmo’s Fire shines in the sky. Ahab see it as a sign that he will be led to the white whale. Later on a calm day, Ahab reflects on his first whale hunt. Starbuck arms himself with a small pistol and pleads one more time to Ahab to head home and give up his unreasonable quest. Starbuck pulls out his gun on Ahab. Ahab asks what ails him and why he trembles and Starbucks regrets “not having the balls to slaughter thee and save the whole ship’s company from being dragged to doom.”

When the crews smells a coral reef, Ishmael recalls the prophecy before he boarded the boat that a day would come when the sea would smell like land and Ahab would die and rise again. Once again, “Thar she blows!” is shouted as Moby Dick is spotted again. Game on with the clock running and just 13 minutes left in the movie.

Ahab gets in one of four smaller boats to purse the white whale. All four boats land harpoons in Moby Dick and Ahab thinks they’ve finally gotten him, but Moby Dick proves relentless and attacks them. Ahab is in the water when Moby Dick swims by and he reaches out to grab the ropes from a harpoon that is on the side of the whale. Ahab stabs the whale with the harpoon before the whale submerges. When the while whale emerges, Ahab’s intangible on the side of the whale, presumably dead. Moby Dick attacks the remaining small boats before ramming the large ship. The Pequod begins to sink.

Just when all seems lost, the coffin that’s made to float pops to the surface giving Ishmael a lifesaver. He floated on it for a day and a night until the ship Rachel found him. “I only escaped alone to tell thee.”

The End.

Total run time 1 hour and 56 minutes.

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

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“Now is the time in my career to do the good book, just because it would make a good movie….”
—Writer/director Quentin Tarantino
ReelBlend podcast, July 5, 2021

In the past week I’ve listen to over 10 hours of interviews from various podcasts of Quentin Tarantino talking about his new novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. One of the most common questions is what will his tenth and final film be. Here’s a short list of possibilities that Tarantino has uttered into the world or others have speculated would be a good option for him to pursue.

An R-rated Star Trek

A remake of Reservoir Dogs (his first film) with an all-black cast

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Part 2

Kill Bill, Part 3

First Blood (sticking closer to David Morrell’s novel verses the 1982 version starring Stallone as John Rambo)

Lady in Red a remake of the 1979 film written by John Sayles, but with a proper budget and Tarantino’s 30 years of directing experience

Personally, I’d love to see the new dad Tarantino do a Disney kid’s film for his reportedly final movie. But since he’s vowed to never work with Disney after a dispute over a screening of The Hateful Eight, I’ll stick with him doing Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Here are some of my reasons:

  1. A chance for one of the greatest American filmmakers to outdo another great American filmmaker (John Huston) in doing the definitive version of one of the classic American literary works. (Huston, who directed the 1957 version, said he could never finish reading Melville’s long novel.)
  2. Moby Dick is a violent revenge story, with a layer of transcendence. (Shades of Kill Bill/Pulp Fiction and other Tarantino films). He could have Samuel L. Jackson give the sermon on Jonah.
  3. Having just been to the Whaling Museum in Nantucket in June, I was surprised to find just how eclectic and multicultural the whaling industry was 200 years ago. In re-reading the book for the first time in probably three decades, one of the things that stood out to me was how Nantucket whaling ships dominated the market attracting whalers from around the globe to make up crews: Native Americans, Africans, Italians, Chinese, Tahitian, Irish, English, Spanish, French, Icelanders—basically everywhere.
  4. The ultimate hang-out scenario. Tarantino loves hang-out movies and once said Rio Bravo was one of his favorite hang-out movies. There the cowboys on a cattle drive have enough down time to have Ricky Nelson breakout his guitar and sing a song with Dean Martin.

Of course, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a mini-plot, hangout movie. Other hangout movies Tarantino likes are Fandango and Big Wednesday. As whalers went further and further out to sea they were gone for as many as three or four years at a time. Lots of hangout downtime. In chapter 53, Melville writes about what was called a “gam” where boats would met out at sea far from home (like the South Pacific). Little social get togethers on the high seas to trade stories, news, and songs.

5. Captain Ahab is one of the great characters in literary history. Though Gregory Peck didn’t not care for his performance in the 1956 film version, it was one of his more memorable roles. Other fine actors to tackle the role of Ahab include John Barrymore, Patrick Stewart, and William Hurt. While the dangerous whaling business was a young man’s game, the captain and his first and second mates were older. The older and more weathered Cruise (and his laser focus) could pull off the single mindedness that Ahab has in his quest to find the white whale. It would also help Cruise in his quest for an Oscar. (And Tarantino is a fan of Cruise’s work and the two even met to talk about the possibilty of Cruise playing the role of Cliff in Once Upon (the one in which Brad Pitt won an Oscar). Can you hear Cruise saying, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me” or “I don’t give reasons, I give orders!”?

6. Now while Tarantino has a list of actors he’d like to work with, one of the actors that Cruise said he’d like to work with is Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson. Tarantino’s Moby-Dick would allow that opportunity.

Here is how Melville describes the 6’7″ Queequeg (who has “otherworldly tattoos” and sleeps with a Tomahawk):

“He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor. Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead was drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of General Washington’s head, as seen in the popular busts of him. It had the same long regularly graded retreating slope from above the brows, which were likewise very projecting, like two long promontories thickly wooded on top. Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.”

Queenqueg is from an island “not down in any map” but thought to be in Polynesia. The image of The Rock tossing a harpoon would definitely be included in the trailer.

7. Melville’s Moby Dick starts out from the perspective of Ishmael, who is a polymath who understands ancient history, poetry, philosophy, Shakespeare, biblical scholarship, zoology, and enlightenment anthropology. I’m not sure who would play him, but it’s the person that Tarantino could funnel his intellectual stream of thought.

8. Tarantino says his last film will not be something “frivolous” and Moby-Dick would be anything but frivolous. And since his script for Jackie Brown was based on an Elmore Leonard novel it’s not like he’s breaking a sacred rule by using someone else’s work as a foundation.

9. Details and rabbit trails. Both Melville and Tarantino love to dive into minutiae. One of the reasons Melville’s book is so long is that he seemingly covers not only every aspect of life aboard the Pequad, but a beginner course in Cetology. (Just what every high student steeped in rapid digital technology wants to spend a class assignment learning about between watching and posting YouTube and TikTok videos.)

But Tarantino has also stated that there is a 99% chance that his final film will an original story/screenplay. And while he says he could change his mind, he says that he doesn’t see trying to “out epic” Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He sees his final film being more like the epilogue of a book. Maybe a video store-centered story in the style of High Fidelity will be how Tarantino rounds out the feature film side of his career. Back to his roots.

But it was fun to speculate.

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

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