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Stealing from Poets

“Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition…Poetry is compacted metaphor or simile…Ideas lie everywhere through the poetry books…From Byron’s, And the Moon Be Still as Bright, came a chapter for my novel The Martian Chronicles, which speaks for a dead race of Martians who will no longer prowl empty seas late at night. In these cases, and dozens of others, I have had a metaphor jump at me, give me a spin, and run me off to do a story. What poetry? Any poetry that makes your hair stand up along your arms. “
Ray Bradbury
Zen in the Art of Writing
(How to keep and feed a muse—pages 36-37)

Related post:
Stealing from Shakespeare
‘Steal Like an Artist’
Movie Cloning (Part 1) 

Scott W. Smith

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Public Morals is proof that even in this time of television’s Great Overcrowding, one should never judge a show by its genre… Public Morals is a picaresque, briskly written and quickly captivating series that is neither afraid nor ashamed of entertaining its audience.”
Mary McNamara
Los Angeles Times review

Public Morals, created by Edward Burns, premieres tonight on TNT and I’m hoping for its success as Burns been a constant filmmaking light for the past 20 years. He’s made indie films and studio films and now turns to TV for telling his long time dream project.

Here’s some inspiration from Burns for all indie filmmakers to consider:

“[Television is] the natural progression for any indie filmmaker. Back in ‘07 we put Purple Violets onto iTunes exclusively. That is where that indie-film-loving audience that used to go to the art house [goes]. They are now home in front of their televisions. This is really a case of where is the best place to tell this story. A friend of mine had a great line the other day, he told me ‘When we were kids, films were for adults and television was for children. And now the reverse is true.’ And there actually is some truth to that. So for me, with [Public Morals], what I was able to do was… I could not ever have gotten this story made as a film. And if I did, it would have been very hard to reach a wide audience. And I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of indie filmmakers making the decision to bail on the film career and embrace this new medium as the place to tell those stories.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns
IndieWire Interview with Ben Travers
August 21, 2015

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The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
‘Don’t try and complete with Hollywood.’— Ed Burns

Scott W. Smith

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“My first impression of the Raiders was that they were violent, and they were a little rough around the edges. And I think that’s what I liked about them.”
Ice Cube, rapper (N.W.A.) and producer (Straight Outta Compton)

“When you got to N.W.A. you had this merger of sort of a gangster football team and a gangster rap group.”
Tim Boyd. Ph.D.
USC School of Cinematic Arts

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It was the first time I saw a billboard as fine art. One day when I was in film school in the early ’80s, as I drove from Burbank to Hollywood, I saw the above Nike billboard on the Universal Studios side of Barham Blvd. of Los Angeles  Raider football player Lester Hayes. It captured the spirit of Los Angles at that time, and there is a direct connection to the movie Straight Outta Compton

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but plenty of people have. Domestically the film crossed the $100 million mark in its first 10 days and been the number one box office movie in its first two weeks. Very impressive for a non-superhero, non-action movie.

But I have seen the ESPN documentary Straight Outta LA which covers what it meant for the Raiders to move from Oakland to Los Angeles in 1982. How “Commitment to Excellence” billboards popped up all over town. It was a great time to be in L.A.—the L.A. Dodgers won the World Series in 1981, the L.A. Lakers won the NBA Championship in 1982, Randy Newman released the song “I Love L.A.” in ’83, UCLA football teams won Rose Bowl games in ’83 & ’84, the L.A. Raiders won the 1984 Super Bowl, and the 1984 Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles.

But what stands out to me more than Magic Johnson, Fernandomania, and the others was silver and black—the colors of the L.A. Raiders. In the Straight Outta LA doc they mention that one of the reasons silver and black was embraced by L.A. and rappers is they were neutral colors for gangs. (Red was the color associated with the Bloods and blue for Crips.) So silver & black was cool with everyone.

While I was in film school I worked as a photographer for Yary Photography (a team sports photography company then based in Cerritos)  and got a front row experience to South Central L.A. Not the night-time craziness, the drugs or the other crimes—but the daytime calm. I did sports team photos throughout Southern California including the areas where are the guys from N.W.A. (and Snoop Dog) went to school and started their music careers.

I was coming from Miami at a time that was well documented in the documentary Cocaine Cowboys, so South Central did not shock me.  But I also thankfully didn’t experience the gang violence. I was just a white guy passing through from time to time taking in the mostly black and hispanic scenery—bathed in the same beautiful California light as their nearby neighbors in Bel Air, Santa Monica, and Beverly Hills.

In 1984 I was also part of the Yary Photo team who set-up and took the team photo of the Raiders at their headquarters in El Segundo. There in front of me were some of the Raiders greats; Marcus Allen, Howie Long, Matt Milen, Jim Plunkett, and Lester Hayes.

I’m sure my L.A. experience was much different than the N.W.A. rappers (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Easy-E, DJ Yella, and MC Ren) that put together the Straight Outta Compton album, but I’m interested in seeing the Straight Outta Compton movie, L.A. of the ’80s again, and how director F. Gary Gray and his creative team made a mainstream hit out of a story set in a gritty culture.

P.S. Colors (1988), Boyz in the Hood (1991) and the Grand Canyon (1991) reflected an L.A. culture preceding the 1992 L.A. Riots which began in South Central Los Angeles following the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King beating trial.

Related post:
Screenwriting Straight Outta Compton
Straight Outta Connecticut

Scott W. Smith

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Thug Writer, University of Iowa Grad, &

Thug Writer, Oscar-winner, University of Iowa grad, & “Screenwriting from Iowa” muse Diablo Cody

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The Juno-Iowa Connection
Screenwriting Quote #1 (Diablo Cody)
‘Ricki and the Flash’—Meryl and the Screenwriter
Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy) 

Scott W. Smith

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Straight Outta Connecticut

“Of the scores of screenwriters who might have authored the story of gangsta rap on the big screen, Jonathan Herman is not the most intuitive candidate.”
Steven Zeitchik
LA Times

After Alan Wenkus and S. Leigh Savidge sold their screenplay Straight Outta Compton in 2008, and after screenwriter Andrea Berloff spent three and a half years on her version of the script, who did the producers call in to bat cleanup on telling the story of the hip hop group N.W.A. from Compton, California? A screenwriter named Jonathan Herman. Let’s glance at the check list of some of his credentials that on one level seem to make Herman an odd choice to write a script about rappers from South Central LA in the ’80s:

White—
Jewish—
Gay—
Raised in upscale Greenwich, Connecticut —
Graduate of Tufts University (a highly ranked private college in New England)—
No inside knowledge of the hip-hop world—
Not a single produced writing credit—
Was working as an Indian food delivery man in 2008

Of course, selling two spec scripts to Universal might of had something else to the fact that the producers were attracted to his writing. Besides Herman also saw his outsiderness a benefit on this project:

“I could never pretend to know what life is like in the inner city or to be black or to be poor or to come from a broken home because I didn’t have any of that…I think the fact that I’m a different demographic, different ethnically and socioeconomically, to the entire world of this movie, maybe that was an advantage writing it in a commercially expansive way for other audiences.”
Screenwriter Jonathan Herman
LA Times article by Steven Zeitchik

Straight Outta of Compton opened number 1 at the box office and made $75 million in the first week of its release.

Related posts:
Screenwriting Straight Outta Compton
Screenwriting Straight Outta Harvard
The First Black Feature Filmmaker

Scott W. Smith

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Is It a Movie?

“I like to feel with absolute certainty that the fundamental idea for the film is, without a doubt, an exceptional premise, one that implies that a film must be made from it, without question.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio
Interview with John Robert Marlow

“I hear lots of concepts from new scribes and rarely do any resonate with the sound of a ‘Hollywood movie.'”
WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart
Q & A (Part 1) 

Last Friday, NPR’s Morning Edition broadcast the story Inmate With Stock Tip Wants To Be San Quentin’s Warren Buffett and I’m sure I’m not the only one who instantly thought, “That’s a movie.” In fact, I imagined Hollywood executives were on the phone with the show’s producers Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva (The Kitchen Sisters) before the broadcast ended.

The arc of the story is all there; a young man grows up on the streets of Oakland where he ends up in a gang and committing crimes that land him in prison. He doesn’t learn to read and write until he’s in prison. He’s never even heard of the stock market until a fellow inmate tells him, “This is where white people keep their money.” BAM! There’s your inciting incident. Let the transformation begin.

From there he throws himself into learning everything about the stock market, sometimes staying up all night and reading as many as 500 articles in a single day, and eventually becoming very savvy in predicting the rise and fall of stocks. Inmates, prisons workers, and even outside traders take notice and he earns the nickname Wall Street. We could give it the working title Inside Trading or Inside Trader.

But the real question is—is it a movie? It’s not hard to see a great role there for Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson,—or a great comeback role for Wesley Snipes. Perhaps a comedy with Eddie Murphy or Kevin Hart.

But is it something that would make producers spend years trying to produce? Is it something that studios would throw $10-50 millions of dollars making and then millions more to market? Is it something that would attract name actors that would help attract a large audience? I’m not writing the checks, but from my perspective the answer is yes. You have a few precedents that help make that decision.

There’s movies like The Pursuit of Happyness (about a homeless man turned stockbroker starring Will Smith), there’s the ever popular The Shawshank Redemption (where education/redemption were key themes), there’s Matt Damon as the in trouble with the law janitor who turns out to be a math genius in Good Will Hunting, and the angle of finding a second chance in life and paying back your debts to society.

And there’s the fact that San Quentin is one of the most recognizable prisons in the country, and open since 1863 is the oldest prison in California. Here’s just a shorts list of films, TV shows, and pop cultured references connected with San Quentin: Escape From San Quentin (1957), Dark Passage (Humphrey Bogart), Johnny Cash in San Quentin, The Lincoln Lawyer (Matthew McConaughey)  Beyond Scared Straight, Lock Up, Fruitville Station, and most recently, Ant-Man.  So, yeah, San Quentin is a part of Hollywood—and deeply embedded in the American consciousness.

It’s a prison reform story— similar and yet different than what’s been produced before.

One of the strengths of the Scriptnotes podcast is John August and Craig Mazin look at the business side of Hollywood screenwriting and filmmaking. In Episode 201(How would this be a movie?) they have a fascinating exchange speculating whether a story that’s ripped from news headlines could be a movie. It was one of their finest 10 minutes ever of their over 200+ podcasts.

While they come at it partly from the perspective of “if I were running a studio” I think they their insights translate well to the indie filmmaker, or really just about anybody telling a story that’s trying to attract an audience—and worth involving other people’s time and money to create.

Does such and such a newspaper story (or any idea you have really) have enough weight for people/studios to invest time and money making? It can be an intriguing story but— is it a movie?

One of the news stories they looked at was the FIFI scandal which involved corruption on an international level. They discussed what kind of movie it could be; a comedy, a political thriller, or a straight drama. What is the tone of the movie? Is it like Cool Runnings, Invictus, a Coen Brothers comedy, a political thriller, straight drama, Erin Brockovich, American Hustle, Moneyball, or Traffic?

Here are some of insights and questions they hit on:

“The thing we need to always remind ourselves is…whoever we pick as our hero, what is going to be her journey through this movie. And how are we going to find the moments of triumph and failure along the way. How are we going to get to that place where all hope is lost? Where do we get to that darkest night? And how are we going to structure the story so that character could have those moments, because that’s what would let it be a story about a person rather than a story about a scandal that we just sort of fundamentally don’t care about. That’s honestly the challenge with most of these movies that are based on real life events is trying to find a way that you can have — you can really chart a hero through this whole thing.
John August

“Every movie ultimately must be about people. We simply don’t watch fictional movies, even dramatizations of real things for the events themselves. That’s why we watch documentaries. And even in documentaries, they make it about people. Otherwise, it’s a textbook… You have to make it about people. That’s how we connect to everything. So Sorkin looks at Facebook. And he says, here’s a man that started Facebook. Facebook is so that you can make friends. This man doesn’t seem to have any friends. Good. Let me start there. That’s a good place to start. Really good place to start.”
Craig Mazin

So look at the questions of “Is it a movie?” and “How would this be a movie?” as different sides of the same coin. I hope you find that’s helpful to you on your road to writing what Christopher Lockhart calls writing The Right Script.  

And keep in mind that “Is it a movie?” doesn’t have to mean, “Is it a big budget Hollywood movie?” Otherwise some great indie, foreign and lower budget studio films would have never been made. “Is it a movie?” is a scalable question—from the big budget Hollywood film all the way down to a short film shot in one day. (And a short version of the Wall Street in San Quentin could absolutely be shot in one day, in one cell, with one actor—it just won’t be the Denzel version.)

And once again this all shows that there are interesting things happening in unlikely places. Just remember before you start writing a movie (or securing story rights) to ask, “Is it a movie?”

P.S. You could also do the Orange Is the New Black version with Halle Barry as Mrs. Wall Street. Perhaps a Pete Rose-type character inspired by the USA Today article Inside prison baseball with the San Quentin Giants. Or a fictionalized/Inspired by version where the main character starts a financial podcast in prison and becomes the next Dave Ramsey.

8/21/15 update: According to a CNN Money article Wall Street (Curtis Carroll)—also called “The Oracle of San Quentin” co-teaches a class to inmates with Robin Williams’ son, Zak Williams (who has an MBA from Columbia). Yeah, the odds went up on this being a movie some day. At least a documentary.

Related links:
Scriptnotes’ 100th Podcast
Filmmaking Quote # 2 (John August)
‘You Aren’t Special’
What’s at Stake? (David Wain)
Running from Failure (Scriptnotes Episode 205)

Scott W. Smith

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“Write it dramatically, write it cinematically, make it intriguing. Make it emotional. Move me.”
WME story editor Christopher Lockhart
‘Move Me’ 

“One of the storyteller’s main responsibilities is to resonate in the audience’s psyche a certain something at the end of it all, to emotionally move the audience.”
Oscar-nominated director Arthur Hiller (Love Story)
‘Emotionally Move the Audience’

Did you know there is an interesting connection between Game of Thrones director David Nutter and Pro Football Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly? Back in the early 80s both were students at the University of Miami. (I was there and for a fleeting moment crossed paths with both of them on their way to greatness.)

Kelly went on to become the only quarterback in history to led an NFL team to four consecutive Super Bowls. Nutter on the other hand made his first feature in 1985  (Cease Fire) with an up and coming actor named Don Johnson. Then he directed an episode of 21 Jump Street with another up and coming actor named Johnny Depp. Then episodes of ER with yet another up and comer named George Clooney.

Nutter’s career has continued to rise directing 19 pilot TV programs that DGA magazine said has resulted in an unprescedented 17 that have been picked up for series, and “He’s had a pilot earn a primetime slot 16 of the last 18 years, and in 2003 accomplished the rare feat of going two-for-two.”

He’s directed episodes of The Sopranos, The West Wing, The X-Files, Homeland, The Pacific—as well as the red wedding episode of Game of Thrones. Nutter earned a front row seat—sitting in a director’s chair— to what’s been called the golden age of television. So what attracts him to a TV script?

“I have an overall deal with Warner Bros. Television and my guiding light there is Peter Roth who’s the president and he’s someone that understands that whenever I do read material it has to move me. I have to be touched by it—it has to have heart. It has to have something that affect me in some respects.

In the last several years a lot of the pilot I’ve done have been pilots that actually have a certain ilk to them. What I mean by that is the fact that my father died when I was a year and a half old and I basically grew up without a father and I’ve kind of been drawn by broken families to some respect in the stories that I’ve told.  Supernatural; two brothers looking for their father after their mother had dies.  The Sarah Connor Chronicles in which the father was gone—it was a single mother situation. I did a series called Jack & Bobby which was a pilot I really enjoyed doing that was on for a short time about a single mother and her two sons.

And also doing stories about characters that actually have no choice to do what they do, but have to—are compelled to do what they do. Simon Baker and The Mentalist; basically a man had killed his wife and daughter and [became] someone who was to become this crime fighter, and somebody that actually  about saving people’s lives. And if you go back to the various pilots I’ve done —Smallville, young Clarke Kent who is someone that is an orphan in some respects and doesn’t know if he’s an alien or a human being or what he’s all about, and what he’s capable of doing, and where he’s going. And to me that was  a great story of telling a story of a young man who’s basically trying to find himself—as all teenagers are trying to find themselves to understand what they’re all about…So to me, story such as that are something that are really important to me.”
Primetime Emmy-winning Director David Nutter (Band of Brothers)
On the Page podcast interview with Pillar Alessandra

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Scott W. Smith

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