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This post was originally written in 2014 as Finding Authentic Emotions:

“Just because it’s a worthy cause doesn’t make it interesting.”
Audio journalist Alex Blumberg

Alex Blumberg is a rock star. At least a rock star in finding authentic emotions.

Between Thursday and Sunday night I caught chunks of Blumberg’s live (and then rebroadcast) CreativeLive seminar Power Your Podcast with Storytelling and was enthralled with what he pulled off with the help of his class.

Don’t get caught up in the podcast part of his title if that’s not your thing, but focus on the storytelling aspect. While Blumberg’s background includes producing for NPR’s This American Life and most recently the podcast StartUp, his ability to talk storytelling was not only informative but moving.

In my last post, I covered some of the nuts and blots I took away from the sections of the talks I heard. Today I’ll fill in a little bit why I think it was one of the top creative seminars I’ve ever seen. (It was no surprise when I later found out that it is the same material that Blumberg presents when he teaches at Columbia University.)

While my last post mentioned the pre-interview process Blumberg did (with San Francisco-based artist Ann Rea), over the weekend I caught the full interview 90 minute he did with Rea and it was 100% engaging.

If you can, buy the $99 class just to salute Blumberg’s and Rea’s gamble and boldness. (A heck of a lot cheaper than taking it at Columbia.) I’ll try here to synopsize what made it special. Though this was meant to be a NPR-like radio program, I swear you could at least write a Lifetime movie script as you listen to Rea’s life story unfold.

What made it such a powerful tag team effort was the framework of questions that Blumberg asked and Rea’s honest answers. You could say the structure broke down into four acts. (I’m flying from my notes so some of the actual details may be a little off.)

1) The desire for Rea to paint at a young age, and the early support she got from her artistic talent. She won a scholarship to art school where she was an Industrial Design major. After graduating she moved to Dayton, Ohio and expectations for an artistic career fell away with the reality that student loans needed paid. (Downbeat)

2) But while in Dayton she met a man who would change her life. She met him the day she moved into her apartment and thought, “He’s my neighbor? Nice.” They got married and eventually dreamed about a life beyond the Midwest and agreed on trying the California dream. He landed a job in San Francisco and they took their goldfish and drove west. Life was full of positive expectations. (Upbeat)

3) The San Fran dream faded when his job was actually in Sacramento and they eventually settled in the suburb of Elk Grove where she spent years working various cubicle jobs with no satisfaction or artistic expression. Financial and marital problems followed until she decided for her own physical safety it was time to leave her marriage. She’d be starting over as their savings were depleted. (Double Downbeat)

4)  She started to paint again and as she talked about that process it reminded me of that line in Jerry Maguire where he’s writing his mission statement and says, “Suddenly, I was my father’s son again.” Rea wrote a business plan because she didn’t want to just paint—she wanted to make a living painting. In her first year as a full time painter she made more than she’d ever made before, and continues to grow her business. And now she helps others turn their artistic efforts into profit. (Double Upbeat)

What you don’t get from my overview is the authentic emotions that were tapped into—in real time over the course of the interview. The laughter and joy of their trip west, the pain of finding out her husband was a closet alcoholic, and the tears of rediscovering her artistic talents—of finding new life.

As a bonus at the end of the second day of the workshop, Blumberg played some edited clips from the interview thereby completing the whole creative process of showing pre-production, production, and post-production.

There were many valuable takeaways for any storyteller. Perhaps none more valuable than asking a question and shutting up. Just letting the person you’re interviewing give raw and honest answers as they tell their story. That’s how you capture the magic—how you find authentic emotions.

You can listen to the edited interview here.

And you can follow Blumberg on Twitter @alexblumberg.

Scott W. Smith

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The moment came at 64 minutes and 11 seconds into episode #300 of Scriptnotes when Chris McQuarrie explained the differences between screenwriting and film directing in just 18 words:

“Screenwriting is pushing a rock up a hill, and directing is running downhill with a rock behind you.”
Writer/ director Chris McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission Impossible-Rogue Nation)

That’s a great soundbite, and serves as a climax to that episode—perhaps to all 300 programs on the Scriptnotes podcast. Heck, it’s visceral enough to describe the entire 100+ years of cinema.

Sisyphus

Sisyphus=Screenwriting

IJ_rockroll-cropped.gif

Indiana Jones=Directing

I don’t know if there will be another 300 episodes of Scriptnotes where screenwriters and hosts John August and Craig Mazin talk “about screenwriting and things interesting to screenwriters” but it’s been quite a run. Congrats to all involved in making that happen.

Scriptnotes debuted in August of 2011 and was the first podcast I listened to on a regular basis. Fast forward six years and I now listen to podcasts more than I do watching Tv or even movies. (Tomorrow I’ll even start a run of posts on how Alex Blumberg transitioned from NPR/Planet Money to raising $1.5 million to launch the podcast company Gimlet Media. And will look at how it represents a new era for content creators including dramatic writers.)

Here are 10 posts of mine over the years based on quotes pulled from Scriptnotes:

Scriptnotes’ 100th Podcast

Is It a Movie?

How to Get an Agent (Quote from UTA agent Peter Dodd)

I was never good or smart enough to get industry work before I made my first movie—Star Wars:The Last Jedi writer/director

I never saw myself as a sitcom person, but I was waiting tables…—Hit Sitcom Writer

From Houston to Hollywood (Mazin’s interview with John Lee Hancock)

Kramer vs. Kramer vs. Modern Hollywood (quote from Billy Ray)

Film vs. TV Writing (10 Difference)

What’s Changed? (Tip #102)

What’s at Stake? (David Wain)

P.S. The one show I’d like to see Scriptnotes produce is one where they expand on episode 235 showing how the original Game of Thrones pilot was shot and scrapped because it didn’t work. Love to see them explore how the script was reworked and reshot on its way to becoming a hit TV program. (It would be a bonus if Scriptnotes wanted to move into doc filmmaking and make a Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypselike documentary on that topic.)

Scott W. Smith 

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“I never saw myself as a sitcom person, but I was waiting tables and I was like I have to figure out something and I wrote this script that was super dark, but when I put it into Charlie’s [Charlie Day] hands or Glenn’s [Glenn Howerton] they made it funny and I realized this could actually be a sitcom. But the truth is I never had any aspirations to get into comedy writing at all.”
Writer/actor Rob McElhenny on the initial concept for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

The following exchange from Scriptnotes podcast #299 lasts less than a minute, but it belongs in the Scriptnotes hall-of-fame. And it’s the drum I’ve been beating in the 9+ years of writing this blog. And a classic example of “do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Screenwriter Dana Fox: What was your trajectory to get you where you are right now?

Rob McElhenny : Well, mostly desperation. I was working in every bar and restaurant in New York City and I was just acting—or I was auditioning, and not getting any jobs, and complaining about every script that I read. So I was encouraged by my agent to stop bitching and write something for myself. I got the Syd Field screenwriting books, and William Goldman [Adventures in the Screen Trade] and just tried to understand [the basic principles of writing]. The first thing I wrote was not a comedy at all, it was really super dark. Really dark because that was a time in my life when I was very dark. 

That script got optioned and led to Rob working with Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) for six months. And while had to be an incredible opportunity itself, took Rob further into the deep forest as the project fell apart and ultimately didn’t get made. Rob stopped writing and decided it was time to leave New York.

Rob McElhenny (con’t): I moved out to Los Angeles and I decided to write again. I said I want to write something very simple so I don’t have to give it to somebody else. I want to go shoot it myself. So I wrote a little short film that was very dark but I brought it to my friends Glenn and Charlie and they thought it was funny so I just hitched my wagon to those two and held on for dear life. 

I didn’t really know anything about filmmaking, but I didn’t know anything about writing I just got all the books and watched as many movies as I possibly could. And so I just went to Best Buy—I didn’t have any money, but I got one of their credit cards with the high interest rates and I bought a prosumer camera and I got Final Cut [editing software] and learned how to cut and we shot it and I cut it together—and it was terrible. Like terrible, terrible. But I realized it was terrible and I re-wrote it and I shot it again. That was also terrible. And then we shot maybe three or four iterations and then I realized, wait, maybe this isn’t so bad. 

It not only wasn’t so bad, but it was so good that it paved the way to co-creating It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (with Glenn Howerton) which is now in its 12th season, and if it continues through its contract will end up being the longest running live action narrative TV program in the history of television. (Surpassing The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriest which ran for 14 seasons.)

Scott W. Smith

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Note: I’ve been on a run of posts about St. Petersburg , Florida and since today they’re having a Jack Kerouac Celebration at The Dali Museum—not far from where he lived and drank in his later years, and where the On the Road writer died in 1969— I thought this was a fitting time to repost an article I wrote and photos I took back in 2009 reflecting on Kerouac’s time in Orlando:

“Someone handed me Mexico City Blues [written by Jack Kerouac] in St. Paul in 1959 and it blew my mind. It was the first poetry that spoke my own language.”
Bob Dylan

“If you’re working with words, it’s got to be poetry. I grew up with Kerouac. If he hadn’t wrote On The Road, the Doors would have never existed. (Jim) Morrison read On The Road down in Florida, and I read it in Chicago. That sense of freedom, spirituality, and intellectuality in On The Road — that’s what I wanted in my own work.”
Ray Manzarek, The Doors’ Keyboard player

Though I’ve spent a good deal of my life living in Florida it wasn’t until yesterday that I visited the house Jack Kerouac lived in for a short time back in 1957-58. I was on the tail-end of a week-long stay in the Orlando area before I flew back to Iowa.

Though Kerouac died in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1969 (on top of living in the Orlando area a couple times) most people don’t associate Kerouac with Florida. Probably because he didn’t write about it much—it’s only mentioned in a few letters. He’s more known for being born in Massachusetts, his brief college experience in New York City and, of course, his time on the road. (Heck, he wrote more about Iowa than Florida.)

The Kerouac Project began when reporter Bob Kealing wrote about discovering the house in 1997. Marty and Jan Cummins happened to own a bookstore not far from the Kerouac house and contacted Kealing about working on preserving the house. Plans were set in motion, but as it is with most visions money was an issue. But after Jeffrey Cole read about the project in USA Today he provided the necessary funding to purchase the property.

Other people and groups would come together to restore the home and launch The Kerouac Project, which includes a writers in residence program. When I drove by the house yesterday to take a few pictures of the outside of the home the current writer in residence, Alicia Holmes, was sitting in the front porch and asked if I’d like to see inside the house. Of course I did.

The house is located at 1418 Clouser in the College Park area just outside downtown Orlando. Though technically he lived in the small porch apartment in the back of the house with his mother. Inside there is a 10×10 room where the 35-year-old little known writer Kerouac (at that time) slept and actually wrote  The Dharma Bums in one of those classic 11 days continual writing sessions he was known for. Though he had written On the Road at this time it had not yet caused the sensation that would eventually catapulted him into fame as writer.

In case you never make it to Orlando here’s a tour I found online.

According to Bob Kealing’ book Kerouac in Florida, back in the early 60s Kerouac bought two lots in the Sanlando Springs area of the Orlando suburb Altamonte Springs with the hopes of starting a “communal retreat.” Those plans never materialized, but if you’ve ever driven from Daytona Beach to Orlando on Interstate 4, you’ve traveled the land once known as “Jack’s Patch,” which is now part of the west bound lane of I-4 just before you reach the 434 exit. Somehow a fitting end for a writer whose best known work was On the Road.

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”
Jack Kerouac
On the Road

P.S. Kerouac died in St. Petersburg and you can read about his final years there in this article.

Scott W. Smith

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USFSP

Yesterday I was a guest speaker for a production workshop at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg (USFSP). The campus is located in downtown St. Pete next to Tampa Bay.  These boats are used by the USFSP (often nationally ranked) men and women’s sailing teams.  The university also has close ties with the Poynter Institute located next to the campus.

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“The scriptwriting field is unpredictable and potentially hazardous to your sanity, chockablock with all the paraphernalia of warfare–booby traps, blast craters, land mines, poison gas and agents. Your best hope of survival is to begin the journey with as much information as possible about the landscape and the strange people who live hereabouts. Because, while there are certainly those among us out here who’d as soon shoot you as look at you, there are just as many happy to give aid and comfort to a weary soldier.”
J. Michael Straczynski
The Complete Book of Screenwriting
page 2

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If someone sees a story at a certain point in their lives, they can see this character (Bella), albeit a fictional character, has survived something, and not only survived it, but grown from it. That’s what all of the things in our lives, even the negative, painful experiences, they all I think provide an opportunity to learn and grow. You just never know what someone’s going to walk away from a movie with, and hopefully we can provide that. I remember when I was a dancer and I had to do this performance and I was really nervous about it, and I happened at that moment to go see Flashdance. I mean, it’s silly, but I walked out of that movie going ‘what a feeling!’ I walked out with confidence. You don’t know what someone’s going to walk away from a movie with, but you hope it’s something positive, but if nothing, you want them most basically to be entertained and engaged. That’s your job.”
Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight)
Cinematical, interview with Todd Gilchrist

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