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One thing we know is that failure is generally funnier than success. Every once in a while, we get to the point in the story where the guys in the show have a big win, and then we sit down and say: ‘Let’s write three episodes where things are going great for them.’ And we just can’t do it. It is too boring for the audience. The audience is invested in the characters and wants them to succeed, but if they do succeed, it is not interesting.”
Silicon Valley showrunner  Alec Berg (And former Seinfeld writer)
Tim Adams/The Guardian

Related posts:
Running from Failure
Normal is Not Funny
Jerry Seinfeld on What Drives Comedy

Scott W. Smith

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Francis Ford Coppola‘s prompt book for The Godfather is several inches thick and contains Mario Puzo’s book The Godfather with note after note by Coppola as he details what parts he wants to extract and emphasize in the movie. The prompt book was the foundation for which he wrote the script.

Coppola explains that the prompt book is a tradition carried over from his theater days. (Before Coppola got a master’s in film at UCLA, he received a theater degree from Hofstra University.) Coppola also says he based his prompt book on one that Elia Kazan had done for A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan has written several books about his life and films including  Kazan on Directing and there are many other books that gleam insights from him that I’m sure was an encouragement to Coppola during his own difficult time of getting The Godfather made.

“When I started On the Waterfront, I was what they call unbankable. Nobody would put up money for me because I had had a series of box office failures…. One of my happiest moments was when I got the Academy Award for On the Waterfront.”
Elia Kazan
Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films Interviews with Elia Kazan
Jeff Young

In the below video, Coppola discusses part of the process that he went through in writing the script for The Godfather;

“On page 79 of the book we have the actual shooting of the Don. Whenever I felt there was a really important part of the book that was going to be in the movie I would sit there with my ruler and really underline—so this details the shooting. My margin notes are; THE SHOOTING! GREAT DETAIL. The Don is the main character of the movie, so as in Pyscho , we are totally thrown when he is shot. How would Hitchcock design this? Hitchcock was such a master about manipulating information for the audience, usually telling you things so that you were equipped to enjoy what you were seeing —rather than withholding information, he would give you information.”
Francis Ford Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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Playing for All the Marbles

“I learned a lot from [Ernest Rides Again director] John Cherry…He told me, ‘If it’s not about world domination, it’s not about anything at all.’ What do you think that means? And why should something that applies to a goofy comedy created for little kids to watch with babysitters apply to your magnum opus? In a James Bond film, world domination means just that. In Ordinary People, they’re fighting for control of the house. It’s still world domination. If your characters aren’t playing for all the marbles, the reader is going to pack up and go home. If the stakes in your story are small, ratchet them up.”
William Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks!

Related post: What’s at Stake? (Tip #9)

Scott W. Smith

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GRIT

“One characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn’t social intelligence, it wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ—it was grit. Grit is passion and perseverance for very long term goals. ”
Author Angela Lee Duckworth (Grit)
Ted Talk

Related post:
Screenwriting & a 10 Foot Concrete Wall
Emma Thompson on Rejection & Persistence

Perseverance & Persistence (Tip #99)

Scott W. Smith

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“Alfred Hitchcock, the undisputed master of suspense drama once said, ‘There is no terror in a bang only in the anticipation of it.’  Anticipation is one of the  most important emotions scriptwriters can feel as they look forward to something that will happen in the future, whether it’s positive, like winning  a big prize, or negative, like facing off against a superior opponent. Without this forward momentum, the story will drag and fail to hold the readers interest.”
Karl Iglesias
Creative Screenwriting
September/October 2009
The Power of Anticipation, page 48

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From Houston to Hollywood (2.0)

(Note: In light of the recent destructive flooding along the Texas Gulf Coast in the Hurricane Harvey aftermath, I wanted to re-post a Houston-centric post from last year as a way of showing that I’m at least thinking and praying for the residents of East Texas. “This could go down as the worst flood disaster in U.S. history.”—Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd/New York Times.)

John wanted to be a screenwriter. He was born to public school teachers in Longview, Texas and raised in Texas City, Texas. Eventually he earned an English degree from Baylor in Waco. Then after graduating from law school he became a lawyer in Houston.

What are the odds of John making it as a Hollywood screenwriter?

[Dramatic pause]

The odds are against him, right? Well, if you’ve seen The Blind Side, Saving Mr. Banks, The Rookie, or A Perfect World then you’ve seen movies where John from Texas (John Lee Hancock) is credited as writer and/or director.

In an interview with Craig Mazin on Scriptnotes, Episode 27 John unpacked how he made the initial transition from a lawyer/actor in Houston to Hollywood writer/director:

“I really fell in love with movies. Not when I was a kid, but when I was in college and I would go to movies a lot. And so I started thinking hard about kind of movie stories, and how they looked on the page, and — this was back in the days before you could walk into a bookstore and get, like, 17,000 books on how to write a screenplay.They didn’t exist. I mean, and you were lucky, you could — there was no online at that time.”

Hancock just turned 60-years-old so I’m guessing this was the late 70s or early 80s. Not only before the internet, but possibly even before Syd Fields’ book Screenwriting: The Foundations of Screenwriting was originally published in 1979.

So he found a place in the San Fernando Valley (probably Burbank) where he could order a few scripts. After learning the format of a screenplay he wrote his first script on the side while practicing law.

But even before tackling a feature script Hancock was studying acting with a teacher who had been a working actor in Los Angeles. It was there where he first started writing monologues and short scenes. Writing that provided “instant gratification.” (A similar experience that Tarantino had in acting classes. Read the post ‘The way I write’—Tarantino)

Hancock said that first feature script (“a story about a guy in his 20s in Houston, Texas who’s angst-ridden and doesn’t know what to do with his life”) was awful. But that “awful” script changed his life.

He sent it to the newly formed Sundance Institute that was doing a workshop in Austin with John Sayles and Bill Wittliff and others and Hancock thought that would be a great opportunity because he’d “never even met anybody who writes screenplays.” (To keep this in perspective he was probably in his mid-twenties at this time.)

“And I signed up, and it also had a thing that said you could — they were going to select, I think, eight screenwriters to go through an intensive four-day worship with Frank Daniel (who had been the head of Columbia Film School and USC).”

I don’t recall if Hancock says on that interview how he started to get traction and work in L.A. (or when he moved there), but that initial thrust began like many others—a desire to write, then writing a screenplay and sending it to some people, and that writing getting him some recognition and eventually leading to his becoming a working Hollywood screenwriting.

Hancock’s experiece in Houston is an echo of what Diablo Cody did in Minneapolis a decade ago and served as the inspiration for starting this blog. (Read the post Juno Has Another Baby). He may not happen everyday, but it happens.

P.S. Keep in mind that Hancock made that transition began over 30 years ago. If he were a lawyer in Houston today he might connect with some filmmakers in Austin, write something that gets on The Black List, or perhaps fund his own low-budget filmmaking. He would find a different path because times and opportunites change.

Related post:
The 99% Focus Rule (via screenwriter Michael Arndt)
Start Small…But Start Somewhere
Starting Small
Different Drummer from Linden, Texas
Screenwriting from Texas

Scott W. Smith

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“Everything I do I just assume I’m going to fail. All seems impossible but I’m very scared of failure –you know, everyone is –and that sence of the impossibility gets me to crank up the turbines. Everything mentally and physically at my disposal I pour into a project.”
Sebastian Junger (Author of The Perfect Storm, War, Tribe)
Outside mag Sept 2010
Article: The path of most resistance
Page 74

Junger is not only a best selling author, but co-director of the Academy Award-nominated Restrepo (2010) documentary.

Scott W. Smith

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