Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

”I consider myself on my last leg.” 
—Brad Pitt at 58
GQ magazine, 2022

“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
1999 Today Show interview (Six years before YouTube was launched)

My lost in L.A. years (circa 1985)

I had a birthday this week and it seems like every year I get older. Other than having an amazing grasp of the obvious, I’ve decided that when I grow up I want to be a YouTuber. I’m not sure when I first put a video on YouTube, but I do remember doing one in 2010 for this blog that was a spoof on the movie Buried. (I’ll try to track that down.)

While I have a long background working in production, for the first decade of YouTube I used it mostly to find how to do something with either a camera or editing software. I didn’t care if it was Philip Bloom or a teenager showing me something. But I began to see the playing field being leveled. When Vincent Lafort’s video Reverie hit YouTube in 2008 it was the biggest shift in production since The Blair Witch Project in 1999.

Lafort had shown to the world what was possible with Canon’s 5D DSLR camera. Around 2010-11 it seemed like everyone owned a 5D or the less expensive Canon 7D. Around that time an intern showed me Jenna Marbles’ YouTube videos. Casey Neistat started his YouTube channel in 2015 and not long after than a new generation of YouTubers was calling him the Vlogfather for paving the way.

I don’t know exactly where the tipping point was for YouTube, but Neistat’s well published financial success built on the back of his YouTube channel seemed to opened the floodgate for people to start looking at YouTube as an income stream or even a career.

Marques Brownlee (MKBHD) is one who went directly from graduating to college to being a full time YouTuber is quick to point out that it is like professional sports in that there are only a few at the top and most people on YouTube are making little or no money. MKBHD/Brownlee is one of those doing very well as you can see from the studio tour below.

Jimmy Donaldson (MrBeast) said he made no money the first two years of YouTubing and then a dollar a day for the next two years. Last year he (or his company) made $54 million. I imagine he could retire at age 23 more financially secure than 99% of the people in the world.

Not bad since his mom was ready to kick him out of the house just four years ago since he wasn’t interested in college or getting a regular job. Instead he built a YouTube empire.

In the past people have suggested I start a podcast and/or a YouTube channel based on this blog, but it always just seemed like more work that I was willing to commit to. But COVID hit in 2020 and I began reassessing doing a podcast and a regular YouTube channel. Just in the last two months I’ve done a ton of research on YouTube and am hoping to make an official announcement as early as this month. But I’ve had false starts before, but in the meantime I’ll pass on what I’ve learned in the coming weeks for those of you interested in doing the same.

I call it ”My YouTube Retirement Plan” because I think down the road it could be where I spend my time creating content. But there are a lot of moving parts to wrap my head around. But a decade from now I can envison creating content for YouTube (and the like).

Will movie theaters be around 10 years—other than a niche or blockbuster only movies? That’s debatable. Will YouTube (and like) be around 10 years from now. You can bet on that. With CAA completing its acquisition of ICM this week Hollywood is down to three major talent agencies (CAA, ICM, UTA). Hollywood is over 100 years old now— and has been on life support before—but has shown an amazing ability to reinvent itself time and time again. To borrow the words of what David Mamet once said of theater, “Hollywood is always dying, and always being reborn.”

Perhaps the talented and young content creators today will be a part of the next iteration of Hollywood. Consider just this one example of the video $456,000 Squid Game in Real Life—as of today it has 264 million views. MrBeast—at the age of the average film school senior (who is just starting to wonder how he or she is going to pay off their student loans—spent around $4 million dollars producing a version of the Netflix hit. Even if Netflix lawyers decided this was copyright infringement of Squid Games, those 264 million views on MrBeast’s channel would likely cause Netflix executives to say, “How do we partner with this guy and his fan base to help promote Squid Game, Season Two?”

And for those of you not sold on YouTube, think of it like Hollywood around 1912. YouTube is only 17 years old. It’s a teenager raring to go. The YouTube versions of Harold Lloyd, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin haven’t even come on the scene yet.

P.S. If you’d like to do a deep dive on creating for YouTube here are five places I recommend:
1) Casey Neistat’s Filmmaking & Storytelling
2) Making Compelling Videos That Go Viral, a MasterClass with Marques Brownlee
3) YouTube Storytelling: How to Make Videos that People Share with Colin & Samir
4) Video Storytelling on YouTube and Beyond, Lilly Singh on Skillshare
5) The YouTube Formula (book/audio book), Derral Eves (forward by MrBeast/Jimmy Donaldson

P.P.S. Happy birthday to Tom Cruise who turns 60 tomorrow. No apparent retirement plans in sight for him.

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

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“I believe in the three-act structure, I’ve just never succeeded in doing one. Terminator is five acts, with a coda. Aliens is four acts. None of my stuff ever fits the three-act structure. I think thinking in acts is good up to a point. . . . If you think in terms of act breaks you‘ll create transitions that are interesting. . . . There are plenty of book on screenwriting. Read the books. Know the rules. And then just break them.”
— Oscar and Emmy winning producer/director/writer/editor James Cameron whose work includes Titanic and Avatar

P.S. One of the things I’ve done over the years on this blog is to curate how a wide variety of screenwriters and filmmakers development their stories. Even the great ones contradict each other.

Related posts:
‘Drama has rules…’—David Mamet

Rules, Breaking Rules, No Rules

‘There are no rules‘

‘Rules are what makes art beautiful.’ —Aaron Sorkin

Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule

There Are No Rules, But..

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


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”During another period, [screenwriter Jim Cash] lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., working in a factory and writing all night.”
—Myrna Oliver, NY Times
(Cash was the co-screenwriter of Top Gun)

Tom Cruise and I both graduated from high school in 1980 —and that’s pretty much where the comparison stops. But I only mention that just to show how mind-boggling his rise to Hollywood success was. Just a year out of high school he had a bit part in Taps (1981), followed by a bigger role in The Outsiders, and as the main protagonist in All the Right Moves (both in 1983), and then slid into stardom with Risky Business (1983).

But wait, there’s more! Just six years out of high school he stared in Top Gun, which was not only the top office movie of 1986, but became one of those rare enduring movies that becomes part of the American fabric. (And he finished out the decade with two of the finest performances of his career with Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July. He had a full career even before his 10 year high school reunion.)

And while many of the cultural icons of 1980s have faded, crashed, or had tragic ends, here we are in 2022 with a Tom Cruise movie set to be not just the top movie of the weekend, but the top box office movie of his career. In fact, when just this Memorial Day weekend is over for Top Gun: Maverick it will be close to making what the original Top Gun made in total domestically.

I haven’t seen Top Gun (1986) since I completed my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles (or maybe even since I started this blog in 2008). But since I plan on seeing Top Gun: Maverick this today I thought it would be fun this morning to revisit the original written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., and run it through the first four four aspects of the Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles filter. (I should mention Epps met Jim Cash at Michigan St. where Cash was a professor until he died in 2000. They collaborated via modem (in the days before the internet) with Epps in L.A. and Cash was working on the Top Gun script in East Lansing, MIchigan. Unlikely places….)

CONFLICT: Top Gun is full of conflict from the opening scene. The movie came out during the Cold War ear—just a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Political tension between the US and Russia was worse then than it even is today. When Tom Cruise was growing up, he and all his classmates (and everyone else has age) did not know a time when nuclear war with Russia wasn’t a real threat. The launch of Sputnik by Russia in 1957 was called the shot heard around the world because of what in symbolized. Though the movie nods to a potential global crisis with an unnamed enemy. (More evergreen and better attracting a worldwide box office I imagine.) Maverick’s conflicts extend to various commanders and supervisors, a love interest, and fellow top gunners, And the movie tosses in some daddy issues for Maverick as well. Conflict, conflict, conflict.

CONCEPT: The origins of Top Gun was an article about this elite jet fighter pilot training program at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego. Hollywood has along history of making movies centered around airplanes for years, including Wings which was the first best picture Oscar Award winner back in 1929. The concept was that great combination of familiar, yet fresh.

CHARACTERS: The cocky Maverick who has trouble following orders, his comic sidekick Goose, the confident Ice, Charlie (the female instructor and love interest), and the stern Viper may not be the most three dimensional characters, but it’s a action-oriented movie, not an Eugene O’Neill play. The characters have great names and are engaging to watch. But audiences really showed up for that Tom Cruise smile (and sunglasses) and the cool air footage. I’m trying to avoid reading or hearing about Top Gun: Maverick, but what I do know is the aerial footage is worth the price of admission alone.

CATALYST: The skipper around the 15 minute mark has Maverick and Goose in his office and is partly thanking them for saving two lives (and an expensive plane) on a test mission gone wrong, but to also blasts Maverick for his dangerous buzzing the tower stunt.

”Don’t screw around with me Maverick. You’re a hell of an instinctive pilot—maybe too good. I’d like to bust your butt, but I can’t. I got another problem here. I got to send someone from this squadron to Mirimar. I got to do something here I still—I still can’t believe it. I gotta give you your dream shot. I’m going to send you up against the best. You two characters are are going to top gun. For five weeks you’re going to fly against the best fighter pilots in the world. You were number two, Cougar was number one. Cougar lost it. Turned in his wings. You guys are number one. But you remember one thing, you screw up just this much [nods to his stubby cigar] you’ll be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dogshit out of Hong Kong.”

Without that scene you don’t have a movie. At least not one with Maverick and Goose going to top gun school. And in that expo dump is the catalyst/inciting incident that sets the story in motion.

For a 2022 high school graduate, parts of the original Top Gun might feel like watching a Wham! concert, but I think it holds up well. There are themes, motifs, and situations at play in Top Gun that are universal to the human spirit no matter the era. One of the things I love about movies is you can be put into a dramatic situation in space in the distant future, or be on a cattle drive in the distant past. For what it’s worth, my five month old puppy enjoyed watching Top Gun with me this morning— and I think she had a moment with Tom Cruise.

Totally unposed photo of my dog watching “Top Gun” this morning (That candle holder was part of a wine barrel that I brought back from a video shoot I did in South Africa about 15 years ago.)

P.S. Another thing that Top Gun (1986) did was change the perception of the military. Many of those raised in the ’60s and ’70s were jaded by Vietnam War. When it ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon there was a solid decade where young people were not flocking to join the military. (Keep in mind there was a military draft in the U.S. from 1964 and 1973.) The PR problem was so bad that in general Hollywood avoided producing many military movies.

And those that did get produced did not put the military in a favorable light. Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986) come to mind. But if you ever doubt the impact movies can have, Top Gun could be case study #1. The movie changed the perception of the military and made being a jet pilot cooler than being a rock star. Enlistment exploded.

“According to the US Navy, the box office success of Top Gun saw their recruitment rates balloon by a massive 500% in the year following the original movie’s release.”
—Cathal Gunning, Screenrant

Heck, I’m still dreaming about getting on an air craft carrier just to see a plane land on a ship at sea.

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

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From the South Bay to the Valley
From the West Side to the East Side
Everybody’s very happy
‘Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day

I Love LA written by Randy Newman

My last post touched on the four part Apple TV+ series They Call Me Magic, which was about Magic and the Los Angeles Lakers back in the 1980s. It’s a hot topic at the moment with the HBO TV series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. Both Netflix and Hulu also have projects on the ’80s Lakers in the works. When I mentioned that I briefly worked for the Hollywood equipment rental company BERC (that supplied camera and gear to Lakers games) while I was in film school back in the 80s, one of my friends said he loved hearing about my L.A. time. I’m not sure how many others are interested, but I at least thought it would be fun to explore some highlights as all this Lakers interest has brought back a flood of living in Los Angeles in my 20s.

I may add to this post from time to time, but I’ll start out with just 10 memories of my time in LA between 1982 and 1987.

1Paramount Studios, Hollywood, CA
My first full time production job out of film school was working for a group in Burbank as a 16MM cameraman (Eclair NPR) and editor (Steenbeck flatbed). My first shoot was to fly to Aspen and shoot America’s Downhill. I was 25 years old and thought for sure I was positioned to make my first feature by the time I was 30. But as Robert Redford said in The Natural, “Life didn’t turn out like I planned.” The company I worked for did large screen multimedia productions that were shown in school and youth groups. They had some big corporate sponsorships which helped give access to using current music, movies, and TV shows.

Part of my job was going on the various studio lots (Disney, Universal, Warner Bros., Paramount) to get assets. This was long before camera phones and ubiquitous selfies, so the only photo I have is being on the lot at Paramount Studios in 1987. My co-worker Tom took the photo with the iconic Hollywood sign seen in the background. I don’t recall what assets I was picking up that day, but there’s a good chance it was clips from the movie Summer School starring Mark Harmon. Directed by Carl Reiner, music by Danny Elfman, and screenplay by Jeff Franklin.

Life Lesson: By the time I was 25 I had been on every major film and TV studio in L.A. but I didn’t really have a plan. And I was inpatient. I wanted things to happen faster. So the message to my 25 year old self would be, “Dude, you’re only 25. Keep writing, keep producing stuff, keep meeting people. Give it some time.” (That’s basically what that kid down in Manhattan Beach was doing in 1987, when he wasn’t working at a video rental store—that kid named Quentin Tarantino.)

2—John Huston
There was a post-production house in Burbank where I went to do some color timing for one of our productions, and when I was leaving I saw an older man being pushed in a wheelchair and instantly recognized it as Hollywood legendary John Huston. I was familiar with his acting in Chinatown (where Huston plays Noah Cross), and also knew his directorial work (The African Queen, The Maltese Falcon, Moby Dick, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) I didn’t even approach him, I just stood there star struck as he went by. He died later that year.

Life Lesson: John Huston’s career spanned over seven decades (from the 1920s to the 1980s). He worked as a producer, director, writer, and/or actor on some of the greatest movies ever made and picked up two Oscars along the way. But I doubt most people today could tell you much about Huston or even recognize his name— “All glory is fleeting.” That famous line could describe the movie Sunset Blvd. about the fictitious Norma Desmond or the real life William Holden. Holden received a nominated for his role as a struggling screenwriter in Sunset Blvd., and then won Best Actor in a Leading Role for his work in Stalag 17. But he died in 1981 when he fell drunk and hit his head on a table in his oceanfront condo in Santa Monica. He laid there for three days before anyone missed him.

3—CHiPS & Cheryl Tiegs shoots, Marina del Rey

When I first arrived in LA I was trying to make connections to break into the business. One of those connections was a guy who coordinated shoots at Marina del Ray. He’d tip me off when a shoot was being done there and the first two shoots I went to were the TV show CHiPS (staring Erik Estrada and created by Rick Rosner, and a commercial featuring model Cherl Tiegs.

Life Lesson: Having only worked on student productions at that time it was the first time I realized how boring film shoots can be for someone watching. And it demystified the process. Bigger productions meant more money, nicer equipment, and bigger crews, but the nuts and bolts were the same as student productions.

4—”Alive & Well,“ Marina del Rey
Through my connection at Marina del Rey I was able to land a internship on the USA Network’s cable show Alive & Well. It was my first taste of being a part of a professional crew. It was a multi camera, switched live program taped outside at a hotel overlooking the marina. Memorable guests on the show that I remember talking to were L.A. Dodger Steve Yeager, actor Dean Jones, and fitness guru Jack LaLane. You quickly learn lessons working on a crew. The first is the grind. Call time for me I think was 7:00AM and I lived in Burbank. I think that drive would be intolerable today, but back in the ’80s I could be up at 5:30 AM and make the long drive. And my classes we

re at night, meaning days when I worked on Alive & Well were 16 hours days for when I left my apartment to when I returned. (Not making a dime.)

It was a good group of people and one of the crew wrote “Intern“ on gaffer tape and put it on my chest. I wore it all day and kept it to this day. Alive and Well did not have a teleprompter, but did it old school with cue cards. One day I was holding cue cards for one of the older hosts and she kept telling me I was moving the cards too slow. One of the other crew told me I was doing fine and to not be discouraged, whenever she messed she would just blame it on me. The fitness expert on the show was Kathy Smith who’s gone on to have a long career in the fitness world.

Life Lesson: “If man made it, don’t eat it.”—Jack LaLane. At least were I live, it seems like a new gym is opened every week. Yet, the Harvard University School of Public Health reported a study that, “About half of the adult U.S. population will have obesity and about a quarter will have severe obesity by 2030.” Jack LaLane (a former “sugarholic”) knew the importance of working out, but he also knew about eating the right portions of the right foods. Avoiding soft drinks, sugar, and all that processed food on the inside aisle at the grocery store is a good start. Jack LaLane made it to age 96.

5—Super Bowl of Motocross, Rose Bowl, Pasadena

When I was in film school, I did a bunch of cold calling trying to get paid production gigs and once got ahold of a company shooting the Super Bowl of Motocross that thought they ”might” be able to pay me as a production assistant. My job ended pulling cable down for a cameraman in the area just a few feet where motorcycles flew by. It was exciting, but I also thought this could be how I die. It was another 16 hour day, I earned my first production credit, but when they dust settled they said they didn’t have any money to pay me.

Life Lesson: The lesson I quickly learned from that and my internship is L.A. is full of production opportunities for people willing to work long hours for little or no pay. (A trend that continues to this day. Writers that move to L.A. who end up working as production assistants quickly realize how little time there is to write between their work, commute, and sleep.) It’s not a sin to work on stuff for free or do an unpaid internship if you can swing it financially, but do your best to make sure it’s a project/opportunity that will benefit you.

6—Exploring Every City in LA and Orange Counties
Instead of pursing more lower level production jobs while in film school, I decided to work as a photographer. I started doing freelance work for Yary Photography in Cerritos (just north of Long Beach). It was a flexible schedule, I learned a lot, worked with some good people, and it had the perk of taking me to jobs throughout Southern California. From Santa Barbara to San Diego, from Palos Verdes to Big Bear, and everything in between. It was a visual feast. It left me time and energy to focus on school projects and go to classes and workshops. Also took photos of the L.A. Rams, L.A. Raiders, the USC football teams, and golfer Greg Norman. Ended up taking a staff photographer position there after graduating, and then got promoted to director of photography (stills). But after a couple of years I started to worry that I was drifting too far from my film school dreams, and that led to my cameraman job.

Life Lesson: The old saying is life is what happens when you’re making other plans. My time driving throughout Southern California and experiencing all the different cultures and varied scenery was actually one of the highlights of my life. I don’t think there was a single city in LA and Orange County I didn’t at least drive through. (And probably the majority of Ventura, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Imperial countries.) Something that would be very hard to do today because of the increase in population and traffic.

7—L.A. Entertainment: Concerts —Jimmy Buffett (where I caught one of the small toy bears he tossed into the crowd because he legally couldn’t perform a song about Buddy the Bear), James Taylor, Boy George/Culture, a symphony concert of John Williams music at the Hollywood Bowl—complete with an appearance by R2D2, and Bruce Springsteen and a packed L.A. Coliseum for the final concert of his “Born in the USA Tour.“ And in perhaps my most quintessential Hollywood experience was going to a John Mellencamp concert at the Universal Amphitheatre, in I think 1984, and during a break before the encore I met Rob Lowe who was sitting in front of me. We both had a Dayton, Ohio connection, so had a brief interchange about that. Theatre: Seeing Dennis and Randy Quaid in the Sam Shepard play True West, Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Ibsen and Chekhov plays, and Yul Brenner‘s 4,000 performance of The King and I at the grand Hollywood Pantages Theatre. And, of course, Disneyland.

Life Lesson: I don’t know how COVID, the internet, and traffic changed how people seek entertainment in L.A. these days, but when I was in my 20s there was a smorgasbord of options every week. Time and money were your only limitations. I remember going to a concert and a play once in the same night in what turned into an overpacked weekend. In the land of excess, I eventually learned the wisdom of moderation. The Tortoise and Hare stuff.

Yes, I kept the handmade intern badge made for me on day one of working on “Alive & Well”

8—Only in L.A.: As I look back on my time it L.A., parts of it seem like an extended dream vacation. Snow skiing in Big Bear, body surfing The Wedge in Newport Beach, windsurfing in Malibu, surfing in Seal Beach, watching playoff games with both the Dodgers and the Rams, hiking in Lake Arrowhead, taking photos on Venice Beach, shopping on Melrose, visiting the Johnny Carson set at NBC in Burbank, shooting interviews with Eric Dickerson (L.A. Rams), Kim Fields (Facts of Life), and Kirk Cameron (Growing Pains), seeing Jodie Foster at the Farmers Market on Fairfax, talking to actor Charles Haid (Hill Street Blues) at a North Hollywood gym, actor Paul Glesson (the principle in The Breakfast Club) came a spoke to an acting class I was in, and legendary stuntman Terry Leonard (Indiana Jones) came to another. Once toured a gym where I was told Heather Locklear was a member. I’m not saying that’s why I joined the gym—but I never saw her there. (What can I say? I was 21 and a little naive. Kinda like the time the guy told me I “might get paid” on that PA gig. )

Life Lesson: Enjoy the journey, and take what people say with a grain of salt.

9—Film Education: Besides film school where I had classes with producer Bruce A. Block (and author of The Visual Story) and cameraman Peter Gibbons, I took classes and workshops at UCLA extension, AFI, Robert McKee’s story structure, and studied acting for three years (Tracey Roberts, Van Mar Academy, Estelle Harmon, Arthur Mendoza). Loved dropping in at the AFI library to read scripts in the days before the internet. There was Samuel French Book Store and other places where you could buy plays and scripts. Met a ASC director of photography who told me it would be 10 years before I operated a union camera. And, of course, there were great movie theaters in Westwood, a revival theater in Pasadena, the Beverly Center Cineplex, the iconic Cinerama Dome and the Chinese Theatre both in Hollywood. Met Oscar-nominated actor Richard Farnsworth (The Straight Story) at a movie theater in Burbank and he genuinely seemed pleased that I recognized him. Great connection to old Hollywood as he got his start as a stuntman working classic Westerns and Ben Hur.

Life Lesson: The history of Hollywood is a glamorous and brutal one. You can be so close, yet so far away. Twenty Feet from Stardom to borrow a phrase from the doc on backup singers. Staying 20 feet (or 20 states) from stardom is not the worst thing in the world if you’ve read more than two biographies or news stories inside the whirlwind of Hollywood.

10—Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (or Austin/Atlanta/Minneapolis/Des Moines/Massapequa)

Give me the weekend to come up with my 10th memory. But I left L.A. in 1987, just as a young guy from the Midwest was arriving. And 33 years later that fellow picked up his first acting Oscar Award—Brad Pitt for Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood.

…After thinking about it over the weekend, the coolest cat I saw when I lived in L.A. was Brian Setzer of the Stray Cats. If I recall correctly, I saw him hanging out in the parking lot of the Rainbow Room Bar a Grill. It was a prime rock and roll hang out in the 80s, and this was just a year or two after the Stray Cats popped hits “Rock This Town,” “Stray Cat Strut,” and “(She’s) Sexy + 17.” Setzer stood out in the crowd with that crazy pompadour. (I‘ll never know how Setzer didn’t have some kind of involvement in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. The man was made for Jack Rabbit Slims.)

Over the weekend that Setzer moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota 15-20 years ago and I believe still lives there. That’s no surprise that he ended up there as it a great arts down and a music scene with roots all the way back to Bob Dylan and Prince. He release a new album last year, and said this about living in the Twin Cities:

”The best thing about Minneapolis – these guys are just as good as any players anywhere in the world. The difference is they’d be in the middle of dinner and they’d be over in 20 minutes. You would never get that in New York or L.A. You’d get his answering machine and a call back in a couple of days and ‘I’m available in a week or two.'”
—Brian Setzer
Brian Setzer moves in Minneapolis and finds his groove

Life Lesson: This is where we come full circle. And you’ve made it this far in this long post, I hope this helps you on your journey. Especially if you’re 17-25 and wondering if you should move to Los Angeles. It’s a different town than when I arrived in 1983. The studio apartment I rented in Burbank for $350 a month now rents for over $2,000 a month. And not only have expenses been supersized there, you can no longer zip all around town because traffic is so bad. There’s a reason people are fleeing to Austin, Texas. (Of course, driving the prices up there.) Where do creative people go if they don’t have deep pockets today? Maybe in a post-COVID world they don’t go anywhere. Writer/directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (who just finished shooting a film shot on a Stephen King story) did go to L.A. after they graduated from the University of Iowa. But they cut their chops making films in their hometown of Davenport, Iowa. In recent interviews, they say if they were young filmmakers today they might just stay in Iowa.

Today, Atlanta is a hotbed of production. I’ve read that all of the film studios in L.A. could fit inside Tyler Perry’s Atlanta studio. (Can someone confirm that?) And while Des Moines hasn’t become a hotbed for features and TV shows, there are some very talented people there. And writer/creator Mike Schur (The Office, Parks and Rec) has TV show on the Field of Dreams that begins shooting in Iowa this year. A production friend of mine did location scouting for it and I’ve read they are going to be training crew of P.A. positions

Fields of Dreams is developed by Universal Television. Universal is launching a Production Assistant (P.A.) Bootcamp training program in Iowa offering an intensive workshop for the job of P.A. — the entry-level gateway into a career in the entertainment industry. The bootcamp will be a two-day work-based job training program, set to take place on June 4 and June 5 (2022). It will teach Iowa residents the foundational knowledge of working in TV production while providing hands-on experience.”
—’Field of Dreams’ Limited Series to Film in Iowa, TV Insider

If you’ve followed this blog much you know that I lived in Cedar Falls, Iowa between 2003-2013. Long story short, most of my production friends thought it was career suicide. But it turned into a great decade of working on productions throughout the Midwest and even a few overseas. In 2008, I started this blog as a creative outlet inspired by Univ of Iowa grad Diablo Cody writing the screenplay for Juno while living in Minneapolis. In 2008, she won and Emmy for writing Juno and later that year this blog won a Upper Midwest Emmy in Minneapolis. Cody was big into the music scene when she lived in Minneapolis and imagine she or her ex-husband at least crossed paths a time or two. And when I walked back to my SUV in downtown Minneapolis after winning my Emmy, I imagine I wasn’t too far from Setzer downtown Minneapolis loft.

The bottom line is there are creative people everywhere. Team up with them and create stuff and see where it takes you. Setzer and Cody didn’t just pop up in L.A. and start cashing checks. Cody started writing poetry everyday from age 12 on, and after college wrote a screenplay in the Minneapolis that put her on the map. Setzer started playing the euphonium with school with jazz bands on Long Island and formed the Stray Cats with two other classmates Leon Drucker (Lee Rocker) and James McDonnell (Slim Jim Phantom). And just to prove that talent comes from everywhere, not only did Setzer graduate from Massapequa High School, but so did Jerry Seinfeld. The Baldwin brothers actors and Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) also grew up in Massapequa.

If a kid in Massapequa starts a band, a podcast, or writing a screenplay today in Massapequa I wouldn’t bet against him or her. Especially if they’re sporting a pompadour. There’s something magical going on in Massapequa.

P.S. Jerry Seinfeld once joked that Massapequa is an Indian name meaning “by the mall.”

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

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Casablanca is one of the best told narratives I’ve ever witnessed as a fan.”
—Director Steven Spielberg

When I started this blog in 2008, I thought it was going to be a year long experiment. Now I’m less that a year away from the 15th anniversary. When I checked a few weeks ago I’d written over 3,200 posts. That’s crazy. And it’s crazy that I’m still discovering things I’ve never seen like the above interview with Julius Epstein who co-wrote Casablanca with his brother Philip Epstein and Howard Koch. (And while the story was based on the play Everyone Eats at Ricks, Julius said the famous ending is very different from how the pay ended.)

Julius was a political science and history major at Penn St., but took a couple of playwriting classes while there. He graduated in 1931 during The Great Depression and before he turned to writing professionally, he actually three fights as a professional fighter. (Two wins and a draw.) Through his sister-in-law he got an opportunity that lead to his first big break. He wrote a sketch for a group called The Funny Bone after they were booked to perform on a big show in that era—The Rudy Vallee Variety Show. He and his brother were paid $40 for that sketch.

(My thin connection to that era is that back in film school around 1983, we did a student production at Rudy Vallee’s home in the Hollywood Hills a couple years before he died. Estate-keeper told us stories about Errol Flynn riding his horse over back in the day to play pool and entertain the ladies. In the interview, Julius says that Flynn was the only actor allowed at the Warner’s writers table because of his lavish stories.)

Not long after that a frat brother from college sold an idea to one of the studios and encouraged Julius to come to Hollywood where he could get him a $25 a week job as a secretary. His parents gave him money for the train trip from Brooklyn. The rest is Hollywood history.

Friends (I believe one was screenwriter Jerry Wald) took Julius to a movie soon after he arrived in Hollywood and pointed out to him what a close-up was, what a fade was, and other filmmaking terms. He called it his “Four year film school in an afternoon.” Julius died in 2000 at the age of 91, and was in his mid-80s when he did this interview. Here are 10 writing tips that I gleaned from this interview:Friends (I believe one was screenwriter Jerry Wald) took Julius to a movie soon after he arrived

1) In hopes of selling his own ideas he spent 6-8 months starting to write a 15-page story idea everyday so he could summit to studios. He didn’t always finish his idea, but he was persistent until he finally sold one. When asked where he got his ideas and he said from ”everywhere.” Including stealing ideas from Time Magazine.

2) He was given a four week trial contact with Warner Bros. for $100 a week. He made the most of that opportunity and ended up working with Warner Bros for 17 years. This was back in the day when Warner Bros. had 75-100 writers on staff. Julius said you had to be versatile, because assignments were based on who was available. (Though he admitted he couldn’t write gangster talk.)

3) In 1935 (just four years out of college) he wrote or contributed to seven films released that year. Though he says none of them were any good.(When studio head Jack Warner asked Julius Epstein if he wanted to change his name on his first screen credit—to something less Jewish—Julius declined.)

4) “Every scene must pull its weight” (even if it’s just an exposition scene).

5) He thought improv was a great evil and the bane of the industry.

6) It took he and his brother 8-10 weeks to write a first draft. Three months at tops.

7) He wrote in longhand on yellow legal paper.

8) He didn’t follow any structure.

9) He admitted that of the 50 screenplays he wrote ”most of the characters speak alike.” Adding that “most writers write themselves.”

10) He was at his best writing with his brother, and according to Julius, they were the ones that came up with the famous Casablanca ending. In the play Rick (Humphey Bogart’s character in the movie) is arrested at the end, instead of “round up the usual suspects” and “this could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.”

There’s a lot of folklore surrounding who did what on Casablanca, but it is a masterpiece that can be enjoyed and studied on many levels: Including the direction of Michael Curtiz, the acting, the cinematography of Arthur Edeson, and the music of Max Steiner.

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

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”I think we’re actually in the heyday of [professional storytelling] right now. There is the right medium for all kinds of stories.
—Chris Moore (Co-producer on Good Will Hunting)

“You have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
—Blogger/book author/ Oscar-winning screenwriter/webshow host/Tv writer/musical writer Diablo Cody

You don’t hear the word heyday much these days. But I like that producer Chris Moore (Manchester by the Sea) used it on his Indie Film Hustle podcast interview with Alex Ferrari. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about this being the new golden era of television. But the phrase ”golden era” has a romantic feel to it. When Moore said we’re in the heyday of professional storytelling it made me pause and ponder what he meant. This is how he unpacked it on the podcast:

”Now there are way more professional ways to be a storyteller than there used to be where you can make a living. That’s the kinds of thing I did as an agent. Maybe you should do this as a novel. Or maybe this would be really cool as a play. Or maybe this is an animated piece because you can do really funny stuff with annimation that you can’t get away with on live action. . . . Think about Good Will Hunting. How would we make Good Will Hunting today? I’m not sure it would be a $25 million movie. It could be a bunch of episodes. It could be a podcast—just Ben and Matt’s characters talking about how the hell to get out of Southie. Kevin Smith could have done Clerks as a podcast and it would have been super funny. I think Kevin’s the kind of guy who would tell you, I just want to tell these great stories about these these characters and situations—and however is best to tell them, I’ll tell them. Anyway, that’s what I think’s interesting about professional storytelling right now. There’s a lot of options.”
—Chris Moore

In fact, Kevin Smith today has the Smodcast website where you’ll find multiple podcasts, info on where to find his movies, in person speaking events, and links to his Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. A few years removed from his 2018 heart attack, Smith is still hustling and still telling stories.

Moore who also produced American Pie said that today that film franchise might simply start of with a series of TikTok videos featuring the actors to gain interest and a wider audience, before it got turned into a limited series. He does point out that some of these storytelling methods are more lucrative than others, but the keep point to be creating. Here are some ways you can put your stories out into the world beyond just film and TV. Ways that could lead to bigger stuff.

Graphic Novels
Story stories
Short films
Stage plays
Audio books
Web Series

In the last chapter of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles, I touch the importance of these alternative ways to tell stories. Ways that are especially important if you live outside New York and LA. Here are some quotes I’ve grabbed from various blogs posts I wrote going as far back as 2008.

“You need to be very ‘platform agnostic.’ You want to find an audience wherever that audience is. So think about the web, TV, and theaters. Open yourself to as many possibilities as you can imagine.
—Morgan Spurlock
Filmmaking Quote #36 (Being Platform Agnostic)

“Stop calling yourself a filmmaker. Call yourself a storyteller. Call yourself a content maker. Start looking at everything as all the different ways, all the different platforms, all the different methodologies of telling your story and getting it out of there. And don’t confine yourself to one almost archaic form. Now young storytellers will come in and say, ‘This is my series idea,’ ‘This is my long form series,’ ‘This is my episodic series,’ ‘This is my web series.’”
—Indie film producer Christine Vachon on
’Stop calling yourself a filmmaker’—Producer Christine Vachon

”There are so many places to tell stories. I want to tell cool stories and not have to ask for permission.
—Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith is Platform Agnostic

I would highly recommend people make something. If they’re living in Austin, or Iowa City, or Chicago or anywhere, and feel like you have something to say or a story to tell—we’re in an era where you can shoot something for nothing. And if you don’t believe me, go on Netflix and watch Tangerine [a film shot on a iphone that played at Sundance] and you’ll go, “Oh, that can be a movie? Holy cow. ”
—Mike Birbiglia
Waiting to Be Great

“The advice I give for filmmakers starting out is don’t wait for me. Don’t wait for the industry… It’s a mistake to wait for Hollywood to tell you you have a good idea. If you have a good idea, try to make it on your own as cheaply as possible… on your phone.”
Producer Jason Blum (Whiplash, Get Out, Paranormal Activity)
Don’t Wait for Hollywood

“People ask, ‘What’s the advice you’d give young filmmakers?’ And I always say, ‘Don’t try and compete with Hollywood. Take your lack of resources and make it work for you. Look at ClerksEl MariachiMetropolitan, even McMullenSlackers.  All of these films embraced their lack of resources and instead focused on story or style or characters, and dialogue.
—Edward Burns
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood

”Make three-minute movies, make a five- minute movies, make webisodes, because it is a maker culture now. And that’s how people get noticed and get movement, with distinct voices and things that are made and not just on the page.
—Screenwriter Clare Sera
‘Smallfoot’ and the Legend of Clare Sera

P.S. Here are a couple of my favorite scenes from Good Will Hunting written by and starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Close your eyes and listen to the dialogue and sound design and see if you think it would have worked as a podcast.

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

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”As a portrait of the human condition, Nightmare Alley is a creepy, all-too-harrowing masterpiece.”
—Michael Dirda on the novel Nightmare Alley
Washington Post book review

”When you stop hoping, you’re in a bad way.”
The Great Stanton in Nightmare Alley

Step right up, ladies and gentlemen! I’m going to try a little experiment with the book Nightmare Alley. I’ve listened to the audio version of the book and watched the 1947 film version starring Tyrone Powers. But before I see the 2021 Guillermo Del Toro-directed version (or read the script he wrote with Kim Morgan), I’m going to see how I’d break the story. Which probably will be a hybrid between the 1946 book written by William Lindsay Gresham and the 1947 movie written by Jules Furthman. (Furthman wrote over 100 produced screenplays and received an Oscar nomination for the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty, was a credited writer on The Big Sleep (starring Bogart and Bacall), and was also co-screenwriter on a Tarantino favorite, Rio Bravo.)

But first, let’s back up before the book existed. Before movies, television, and programs streaming on the internet, people were entertained by vaudeville acts, carnivals, circuses, and local fairs. In the 1800s, P.T. Barnum became quite wealthy for a period showing unusual acts, sideshows, and curiosities. (He didn’t start the circus acts until later in his life.) Some of his tactics were uncouth and unethical. But spend a short time on the internet, and you’ll see that even in our sophisticated times little has changed. Human nature is human nature. (For a long time, the attractions featured people with abnormalities: Siamese twins and the elephant man.)

In the early to mid-20th century, there were also things called spook shows. These featured seers or spiritualists who advertised they could reach the spirit world. This manifested itself in the appearance of people and objects levitating, performing hypnotisms, and with seances trying to communicate with the dead. They were popular for decades. (And they appear to be popular again. An article two days ago in USA Today is about a 26-year-old guy who claims to get messages from the dead through his five senses. He also has a Netflix series and is said to have ”amassed a waiting list of more than 300,000 people seeking readings.”)

But those along with traveling ”sideshows” and “freak shows” have mainly faded from American and European culture. But Gresham was fascinated by stories he’d heard of the transient carnival life and even wrote a non-fiction book on the subject titled Monster Midway: An uninhibited look at the glittering world of the carny life (1953).

Grisham’s book used that backdrop to create a stew of syncretism, mixing spiritualism, the occult, Christianity, Tibetan mysticism with good old-fashioned fast-talking showmanship.

Nightmare Alley centers on telling the story of Stanton (Stan) Carlisle. An ambitious 21-year-old young man who’s hit a rough patch around The Great Depression of the 1930s. He talks his way into an entry-level position in a lower rung carnival. In the first chapter he sees a freaky man/beast bite the head off a live chicken. It sets the tone of the story. When he asks the man who hired him how he got somebody to do that job, he’s told, ”In the carney, you ask no questions, you get no lies.”

In the next few chapters, Stan meets the cast of characters in working the carnival: Bruno the muscle man, the electric chair woman, the world’s smallest man, and Zeena the mindreader. Zeena is an older woman who is loyal to her alcoholic husband because he taught her the mindreading business. Stan wants to learn from her so he can move up ladder, but she guards her secrets. But after her husband dies after accidentally drinking from the wrong bottle—poisonous wood alcohol. Stan and Zenna team up to keep her act going. She needs him. (Think Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in Nightcrawler.) Stan learns “the code” to being a mindreader. Which boils down to a combination of common sense (“I think you’re having trouble in a relationship with someone close to you,” “You have financial concerns”), and reading signs such as the condition of people’s shoes and hands, and snagging some inside information via trickery.

After Stan learns all he can from Zeena, he runs off with the cute young woman Molly from the carnival. He’s ready to be a mindreader rock star in a more profitable area and needs Molly as his assistant. I won’t go into the full details here, but the book basically has Stan succeed but then bite off a little more than he can chew. You could say it’s a zero to hero, then hero to less than zero story. The book also goes deeper into Stan’s backstory (some mommy and daddy issues) and a more convoluted ending than can fit into a two-hour movie. (But it will be interesting what elements del Toro keeps, ignores, or changes from the book and original film.)

Here’s the entire 1947 movie on YouTube:

The 1947 movie and the book start on the same track, but it seems like the movie only has time to cover about 65% of the novel. That’s not uncommon, plus the book deals with themes and issues that movies made during the Hays Code era (1934-1968) generally avoided. Both the 1947 movie, and the novel stand on their own. I’m reasonably sure that del Toro’s version will not be concerned about the Hays Code when Hollywood censoring itself.

But the bones of Nightmare Alley make a good story. Thematic cousins are Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, that premiered on Broadway in 1949, A Place in the Sun (1951), and Elmer Gantry (1960). And it’s not hard to draw parallels to more recent TV shows: The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. Nor is it hard to draw parallels to stories of the distant past from Shakespeare to Greek mythology—like Icarus flying too close to the sun with wax wings. And it fits the film noir genre popular is the 1930s through the 1950s well. Nothing new under the sun, folks. It’s way too late for a spoiler alert—but rarely do these men missing the exit stories have happy endings.

Del Toro has said this is a movie that he wanted to make early in his career, but he didn’t have the clout to pull off. So fresh off a best picture Oscar for The Shape of Water (2017)— a modern carnival-like tale that in del Toro’s own words was about, “a woman getting funky with a fish”— he had the clout to finally make Nightmare Alley. Or at least his vision of Nightmare Alley. Anytime you condence an almost 300 page book into a feature film there are aspects that will be lost. About all I know about del Toro’s version is that it is visually stunning and he was more interested in making it a character study rather than a morality tale.

But just as an exercise, here is how I’d breakdown the story after listening to the audio book and watching the 1947 movie:

Act 1

Introduce Stanton as an ambitious, prickly yet likable 21-year-old man. (Closer to Tom Cruise in Rain Man than the mid-40s Bradley Cooper that del Toro cast). Someone looking for adventure beyond what his small town can offer. He talks his way into an entry-level job in a traveling carnival. The opening sequence is crucial. When he asks the guy who hired him how he got a person to be the geek (the man/beast who bites the head off a live chicken), he’s told you don’t want to find out. But, at the end of the film, Stan will find out.

At first, the world of the carnival is fun and exciting. New people, new towns. The thrill of seeing an audience entertained. Stan has found his tribe. And he hustles to learn every aspect of the carnival business: setting the stage, setting up lights, working with low budget special effects, and using music and sound effect to move an audience—all on no budget. But he soon tires of the grind and the low pay. The bad hotels, bad food, and bad people. But he sees Zeena and her mind-reading skills as the older woman who has the secrets he can learn to move up in the ranks. And learn a thing or two about sex. Zeena is loyal to her alcoholic husband, but only to a point. When her husband is no longer reliable to be her assistant, Stan fills in that role. Then fills in as her lover. Stan is accidentally (but we’re not sure) involved in what leads to the husband’s death—the drinking of poisonous wood alcohol. Once Stan learns how tp play the mindreading game, he has ambitions to keep climbing. He starts a relationship with Molly, a beautiful young woman working in the carnival. When that relationship is exposed, it hurts a lot of people. Stan is even physically beaten by the strongman in the carnival who saw himself as Molly’s protector. Stan and Molly decide to flee the carnival life together. As Stan assesses the situation, he realizes that this could all work out for good.

Act 2

Stan and Molly are now a dynamic duo in a more refined Chicago setting. This is no carnival; they are a big headline act. More like something you’d find in Las Vegas today. Stan wears a tux as the mentalist known as ”The Great Stanton” for his accurate psychic readings. Molly wears a beautiful gown as his assistant. The audience is full of wealthy Chicago movers and shakers. Stan is quite the dashing entertainer, and the audience is buying whatever he’s selling. His carnival training is paying off. Stan and Molly are living the big life. Nice 5-start hotel suites and fine dining. But Stan also has the attention of an investigator who lets him know if he breaks any laws, he’s going to get arrested.

Dr. Lilith Ritter, a sophisticated psychiatrist, contacts him after seeing his show. She is not a believer in act, but is intrigued that some of her clients are enamored with him. Stan has trouble sleeping and night and agrees to meet with her regularly. He tells her things that he’s never told anyone, including his involvement in the death of Zeena’s husband in handing him the wrong bottle of alcohol. They develop a bond leading us to wonder who is conning who.

Midpoint conflict: Molly yearns for something more than just the hustle, the con. For all their success and high living, they don’t appear to be getting ahead financially. They’re not building a life together. Molly’s mental fatigue has caused her to slip a few times in the code signaling endangering their whole act. She also is a little jealous of the Dr. Ritter, and the time Stan is spending with her. Molly wants to get married, own a house, and have kids. She questions Stan’s commitment to her. When she’s serious enough to threaten quitting, Stan proposes to her and says they’ll get married soon and have a big, long honeymoon in Europe.

But Stan hears the ticking clock on his business plan and decide he needs a big payday soon. That is where Dr. Ritter can help him. She gives him inside information on wealthy clients of hers, giving him an opportunity to do private and profitable readings. This works so well with one client that the woman gives Stan what he’d typically make in a year for comforting her on her dead daughter. She wants him to build his own place and be able to help other people. Stan feels invincible now and seduces Dr. Ritter. Or does she seduce him? Dr. Ritter agrees to keep his money in her safe—for a cut of his business. And gives him a lead on the richest guy in town.

Now all Stan has to do is tap into this guy for the big payoff that will allow him to retire from the racket. Dr. Ritter has the dark secret that has bothered the wealthy guy his entire adult life. Stan meets with the guy who is skeptical of him, but he’s not getting any younger and has questions he’d like answered before he dies. He wants evidence that Stan has special powers. Armed with a few secrets from Dr. Ritter, Stan gives him enough proof to satisfy him. The rich guy gives him a generous deposit to go deeper, but warns Stan that if there’s fraud involved, he’ll make sure Stan goes to prison. Molly disagrees with this new direction. Even Stan gets cold feet because it’s a sink or swim moment. Dr. Ritter tells him to man up. Finish the job.


Stan convinces the wealthy guy that he has communicated with his dead girlfriend from his college days. What the wealthy guy wants more than anything is to talk to her himself. To tell her he’s sorry for the whole situation. (She died after having an illegal abortion.) The guilt of his involvement still eats at him all these years later. All the financial success he’s had in life has not eased his pain. Stan tells him his vision of building a spiritual city, and the man is such a believer in Stan’s gifts that he gives him $150,000. Stan could flee town now and be comfortable for a long time. But he wants one more payday.

He convinces Molly to dress up and play the dead college student by promising her this is the last thing he’ll ask her to do. Stan uses every trick he learned at the carnival (plus a sedative to the rich guy supplied by Dr. Ritter) to trick the wealthy guy into actually seeing his college flame. He tells him that he cannot touch her until his spiritual city is built. But the rich guy gets carried away and gropes after Molly causing the illusion to be broken asMolly yells and pushes him away. Stan knocks out the already groggy rich guy and they flee.

Stan tells Molly to get the first train out of town. He tells her to meet up with the original carnival where they met and he will eventually meet her there. He then goes to Dr. Ritter and tells here what happens and asks for his money. She gives it to him. When he says that he’ll contact her when the coast is clear, she coldly responds that he has confused her professional work with a personal relationship. He’s confused, she’s not. He rips open the package of money to discovers not stacks of hundred dollar bills, but stacks of one dollar bills. He demands the rest of his money. She calmly tells him that since she has been seeing him he has struggled with delusions of grandeur. She has played the player—the old gypsy switch. When he tells her he could turn her in for her role. She says, “And who would believe you? Besides, I have a recording of you confessing to a murder.” He says, you planned this all along. She says, “My, you do have the gift of reading minds. But I do think you need to spend some time in a psychiatric hospital.” When he hears a distant siren he realizes it’s time to flee.

The next scene is some time in the future— we don’t know the timeframe—but Stan is almost unrecognizable. Unshaven, dirty and disheveled clothes, and riding on a boxcar of a freight train hobo style. He’s drunk or hungover and trying to hustle a fellow for a drink. The young man just laughs at him, and tells him he doesn’t drink. Plus he tells Stan that he only has 4 bits to his name. That’s ten shots of nickel whisky, so Stan tells him, “Something tells me you have a scar on your knee.” The young man says, “Sure I have scars on both knees. I have scars all over. I’m a working man, not a con man.” He’s not playing Stan’s game. When Stan gets angry, the man says, ”Now you’re talking. Speak what’s on your mind.” Stan rants on and it’s his first honest moment of the movie. He talks about the nightmare alley he’s heading down. His thoughts are interrupted when the train suddenly slows down for a frisk. Stan is too weak to flee. He tells the men with clubs and lanterns that he’s a traveling preacher and they decide it’s not even worth arresting him.

(Jodie Foster says she is drawn to stories about people in spiritual crisis, and Stan definitely hits that mark.)

In the final sequence Stan finally arrives in some small town at the carnival where he first got a job. No one recognizes him as he walks around because of his rough shape. He comes up on Molly doing a mindreading act, except she is now the headliner. He finds the boss who first hired him and says that he has the gift of doing cold readings and needs a job. The boss doesn’t even recognize him. Tells him he’s not hiring. In fact, he’s too busy to even look at the disheveled man. But Stan, says those magical words, “Please, I’ll do anything.” The boss looks and him eye to eye, and then recognizes him, “The Great Stanton.” He reaches for a bottle of whisky and asks Stan if he’d like a snort. Stan says that he gave up drinking, but he could use a snort. The boss said he let a good one get away—Molly got married six months ago. He holds up the bottle again and Stan knows that he’d like another shot. “The opening I have is not a great job, but it’ll keep you in coffee and cakes, and a shot now and then. Of course, it’s only temporary— just until we get a real geek.”

On Stan’s face is the recognition of how one becomes the man/beast geek who bites the heads off live chickens.

The End

The book ends does end with Stan being offered the part of the geek, cementing a nihilistic ending. The 1947 movie has that scene. But adds an additional scene where Stan has some sort of breakdown and gets chased by carnival workers. Molly sees Stan and calls out to him and he surrenders. She says she’ll take care of him. That ending reminds me of what writer/director Frank Darabont once said—that every film should have an uptick at the end, otherwise what’s the point. It’s a hint that he’ll get better. (Even the movie Seven has a slight uptick.) But after the things Stan’d done to Molly, I’m not rooting for them to get together. I have no problem with a somber—or at best ambiguous ending (will he take the geek job or not?). It makes it more of a cautionary tale. More Greek tragedy.

My next post will be after I see the del Toro version and read that script.

P.S. William Lindsay Gresham, the author of the Nightmare Alley novel, actually returned to the New York City hotel room where wrote much of that book a decade prior, and killed himself. He went down his own nightmare alley. He was an alcoholic and a womanizer who later became a Christian, then embraced Scientology, before ending up an atheist later in life. Upon his death, it was reported that a note or business card was found in his pocket that read “No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money. Retired.” His first wife was was Joy Gresham who later married writer C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia). The movie Shadowlands starring Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins is the story of Lewis and Gresham. And that is the rest of the story.

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

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”You learn more from finishing a failure than you do from writing a success. And you definitely learn more from finishing a failure than you ever do from beginning something that’s fantastic but stops.”
Neil Gaiman

Audio book written and read by Neil Gaiman

This post ’makes a nice companion piece to yesterday’s post How to Be a Better Writer a Year from Today (According to Ray Bradbury).

”If you want to write an award-winning television episode, you got to write episodes of television that critics don’t like. If you want to write an award-winning movie, you got to write movies that critics don’t like. If you want to write award-winning short stories, you got to write short stories that nobody reads—that don’t really work. That’s okay. And after you’ve written 10,000 words, 30,000 words, 60,000 words, 150,000 words, a million words, you will have your voice. Because your voice is the stuff you can’t help doing.”
—Neil Gaiman
MasterClass, “Finding Your Voice” (Lesson 4)

Gaiman talks about the first book he wrote being an unpublished children’s book that only exists in his attic. He revisited the book after he established he writing career and was pleased to find a page and a half of that book where he recognized his emerging voice. Then he put the book back in his attic where it belongs.

In lesson 18 of Gaiman’s MasterClass he talks about “Rules for Writers” that he first read in an essay by Harlan Ellison, that was was based on Robert Heinlein’s essay On the Writing of Speculative Fiction. Gaiman added his spin to it, and here’s my shorthand version. (There’s no shortage of writers interpreting Heinlein’s original thoughts for various reasons.)

1. Start writing.

2. Finish what you write.

3. Submit what you write (to someone who can publish it).

4. When it comes back rejected (make changes as needed or as requested), send it back out.

5. Start writing the next thing.

Heinlein had a slightly different wrinkle, but the above list captures the essence. It’s worth pointing out that Heinlein’s original essay was written in 1947. That was the same year that The Saturday Evening Post published his short story The Green Hills of Earth. A decent payday for a writer back then. So he had reason to be hopeful about writers following his rules.

“If you will follow them, it matter not how you write, you will find some editor somewhere, sometime, so unwary or so desperate for copy as to buy the worst old dog you, or I, or anybody else, can throw at them.”
—Robert Heinlein
On the Writing of Speculative Fiction

Once upon a time, a writer could actually make a living writing short stories that were published in magazines. That era was well before the internet, DVDs, and even before Gilligan’s Island began airing on TV. Not to point the blame to Gilligan and the gang on the S.S. Minnow, but around 1963 seems to be when the shift happened. There was a major cultural shift in the United States. In 1963, Bob Dylan sang on TV for the first time (Blowing in the Wind), Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The next year the Beatles came to America for the first time, the Civil Rights Act became law, and Gulf of Tonkin Resolution ramped up U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Then, to quote the theme song from Gilligan’s Island, “the weather started getting rough.” Television was ready to take the main stage capturing “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” From the rise of Muhammad Ali to the fall of Saigon.

No competitor ever gave publishers as many fretful hours as television, which grew rapidly in the postwar boom. Expenditures on television advertising — network, spot, and local — climbed from virtually nothing in the late 1940s to more than $1.7 billion in 1963 … . When magazine profits declined in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many observers were quick to blame the trouble on television.” 
—T. Peterson
Advertising Age, 1980

That was a bad time of transition to be a short story writer dependent on income from magazines. But fast forward 60 years and there are ways that writers are making new inroads to getting their stories told. There are writers getting a following on blogs and podcasts, and raising funds through places like Patreon and GoFundMe. Writers are self-publishing their print, digital, and audio books easier than ever. Andy Weir is the success story of a guy who had a two-decade career as a software engineer before becoming a full timer writer. Weir just starting freely writing a serialized version of a book on his website until the demand was strong enough to self-publish on Amazon Kindle. That turned into the best selling book The Martian, that also become the hit movie of the the same name starring Matt Damon. How’d he do it?

He started writing.

He finished what he wrote.

He self-published it. (And its success led to it being published by Penguin Random House and becoming a New York Times bestseller.)

He started writing the next book.

P.S. Hearing Gaiman’s talk about his book The Ocean at the End of the Lane made me just purchase that audio book. A fantasy story, rooted in his childhood, that he says is a lie that tells the truth. A book that started as a short story and just grew. If you’ve never heard Gaiman’s literal voice, here’s a talk I found online titled How Stories Last.

Related post:

The four most important words that every storyteller wants to hear to know that their story is working (According to Neil Gaiman)

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

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We all know that it’s conflict really that makes drama happen. It’s not just a slice of life that you’re doing.”
—India-born writer/director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding)
MasterClass, Lecture 3

Salaam Bombay!

It’s possible that I’ve written more about the importance of conflict in drama more than any other subject. It’s why I chose the first chapter of my book to be on conflict. Here are a handful of posts over the years that unpack that some more if you want to do a deep dive.


The Key is Conflict (movies, TV, Docs, Podcasts, Etc.)

Protagonist = Struggle

Neil Simon on Conflict

Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule

Conflict is at the root of everything from Shakespeare to Hamilton to Looney Tunes:

”Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
From Henry the IV

”There’s trouble in the air, you can smell it.”
Say No to This (from Hamilton) written by Lin-Manuel Miranda

“I like to swing upon my perch and sing a little song,
But there’s a cat that’s after me and won’t leave me alone.”
—Tweety Bird

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

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“Since those days chucking candy in the grocery store in Cedar Falls, Kurt Warner has been an inspiration.”
Sean Gregory
Time magazine

This week they announced the nominations for this year’s Oscar Awards. But I missed this blog’s anniversary last month, so let me backtrack before I write any posts about the Oscars.

Back on January 22, 2008 I wrote my first blog post for what I thought might last a year. But here we are 14 years later and I’m still at it. It took a lot longer to turn it into a book than I thought it would—but Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles finally came out in 2020. Still working on getting a podcast and YouTube channel going, but some things take time. But it’s been an interesting and enjoyable journey.

And since the LA Rams will be playing in the Super Bowl in three days, it’s time I finally give former Rams quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner an assist on my starting this blog. Warner’s Cinderella story has been condensed to the catchy phrase “From Supermarket to the Super Bowl,” because his road between college football and NFL greatness was a stop stocking shelves at a grocery store.

That grocery store was in Cedar Falls, Iowa—the same town I started the blog Screenwriting from Iowa… and Other Unlikely Places. In fact, the Cedar Falls house I was living in at the time was just a few miles from the Hy-Vee store where Warner worked. Just as unlikely it was that screenwriter Diablo Cody would emerge as a Oscar winner (Juno) just a few years out from going to college in Iowa City (maybe 30 minutes from Warner’s hometown of Cedar Rapids), is Warner becoming an NFL’s MVP and two time Super Bowl MVP. Those two are key to me starting this blog.

Warner went from being a backup for the Saint Louis Rams at the start of the 1999 season to being the ringleader of what was called “The Greatest Show on Turf.” Like many others I was captivated by his somewhat zero to hero story. (Technically he was a great high school player and Gateway Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year in college.) I knew well Warner’s story of playing football in Cedar Falls at the University of Northern Iowa and of stocking shelves at Hy-Vee. He put Ceder Falls in the map for me. Unusual circumstances took me to Cedar Falls so in 2004 (for what I thought would be a brief stop), and I ended up being there 10 years.

I later learned that author Nancy Price wrote the novel Sleeping with the Enemy in Cedar Falls, and Robert Waller wrote The Bridges of Madison Country also in Cedar Falls. Both of those became very popular movies starring Julia Roberts, Clint Eastwood, and Meryl Streep. So from my perspective, starting a blog on screenwriting there in 2008 didn’t seem that outrageous. When this blog won a regional Emmy in Minneapolis later that year I was pretty stoked. But part of me also felt like I had that Cedar Falls wind at my back. So thanks to Kurt Warner for planting that first seed over 20 years ago.

Back in 2010, I wrote the post Kurt Warner … What a Story about what an amazing personal story he had. I always thought it could make a super movie, but I also knew the challenge was how do you tell his story in 90-120 minutes? Do you cover his high school years? Warner sitting on the bench for 4 years in college waiting for his shot? His time at Hy-Vee? Playing arena football in Des Moines? Playing football in Europe? The two Super Bowls he played for the Rams and the one later in his career playing for the Arizona Cardinals? His philanthropic and charitable work after his playing days were over?

Back in 2008, I heard novelist John Irving (The World According to Garp) speak at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—see the post John Irving, Iowa & Writing. Afterwords I told him I heard he was working on bringing a screen version of Olympic Gold medallist and legendary Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable’s story to the big screen. He said movies don’t do a great job covering multiple decades of the same person. Tom Cruise today could play the older coach version of Gable (and since Cruise was a high school wrestler and fan of Gable’s that would be perfect). But Cruise today wouldn’t be believable as the high school/college/Olympic-era Dan Gable. Those challenges play a part of why Gable’s story has never been turned into a movie. Perhaps as Cruise can produce a limited streaming series on Gable and make that somehow work.

But how would you compress 30+ years of Kurt Warner’s life into one movie?

Well, what screenwriters David Aaron Cohen and Jon Erwin did was make it a love story. A love story about football and a love story about a woman. Ripped right out of the playbook of Jerry Maguire (with a little faith in God tossed in). The script was based upon the book All Things are Possible that Warner wrote with Michael Silver and became the movie American Underdog currently in theaters and available online. I saw the movie in January and really enjoyed it. The movie stars Zachary Levi and Anna Paquin and was directed by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin. The film covers his last year of college, his time stocking shelves, playing arena football, and winning his first Super Bowl—about 7 years of his life.

In the trailer the football footage oddly looks like it was shot video game style, but in the movie it really works because it matches the style of the Arena Football League when Warner played for the Iowa Barnstormers. (Man, I loved those Barnstormer helmets.) The movie is one of the top ten movies at the box office so far in 2022, and has made $25 million since its release Christmas Day 2021.

“This isn’t how I had it planned. I didn’t want to work in a grocery store then go to Amsterdam and play in the Arena League. But as I look back over my life, I realize that I had a lot of maturing to do. I had a lot of growing in my faith.”
—Kurt Warner

I think the tag at the end of the film states something like Warner being the only undrafted player in the NFL who has gone on to become a Super Bowl MVP. It is the epitome of an underdog story. A real life Frank Capra-like story.

P.S. The one disappointment I had with the film is they shot most of it in Oklahoma (probably for tax credits). I would have loved to seen parts of it shot in Iowa—particularly at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). Warner played his games in the dome there so it was a little disconnect for me to see UNI home games in the movie being played in an outside stadium. But the filmmakers did what they had to do to finally bring this story to the big screen—and shoot the film during a dang global pandemic.

Related Post:
Why Do We Love Underdog Stories? (This is actually what I wrote 12 years ago at the end of that post: “The University of Northern Iowa is where Kurt Warner played college football before he became one of the greatest underdog stories in contemporary sports history.”

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

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