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Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My YouTube Retirement Plan

”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
MasterClass

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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