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All eyes are on the state of Iowa as I write this post at 9:47 (EST) on Monday, February 1, 2016. The results are starting to come in from the 2016 Iowa Caucuses. It’s the first electoral step as Republicans and Democrats in the state chose presidential nominees. It’s not exactly predictive, but it sets the tone in choosing the next President of the United States.

It’s a unique time for people in the state as presidential candidates crisis cross the state (often followed by national and international journalists) meeting people in schools, churches, libraries, parks, and restaurants.

So today as I was thinking about my time living in Iowa the Canteen Lunch in the Alley (pictured above) came to mind. A few years ago I produced and shot an economic development video for a group in Ottumwa, Iowa and stopped by the Canteen for lunch.

Their specialty is the loose meet sandwich, and I’m sure more than a few presidential candidates and their staff have eaten one. Actor Tom Arnold has eaten more than one. He was born in Ottumwa and the Canteen was actually the model for the Lanford Lunch Box featured in the sitcom Roseanne (which he starred in with Roseanne Barr).

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

“To produce a mighty work, you must choose a mighty theme.”
Herman Melville

Scott Myers at Go Into the Story has an excellent five-part interview with 2015 Nicholl winning screenwriter Anthony Grieco. Here’s one part that jumped out at me:

“When I construct my characters, I start by asking myself, ‘What is the thematic value of my story?’ Then I go, ‘OK. Let’s meet someone at the beginning of this story who doesn’t believe in that value.’ To me, a screenplay or a book, they’re like a thesis. You’re trying to either prove or disprove a value.

The theme leads me to the character’s flaw, but I remove the word ‘flaw’ and I replace it with the word “armor.” Giving them a flaw makes me inherently judgmental of my characters. It’s hard not to do that. You judge them. You shouldn’t judge them. When you replace the word ‘flaw’ with the word ‘armor,’ you instantly have more empathy for them. It’s like, ‘This isn’t necessarily a bad person, it’s simply someone who is protecting herself from something terrifying.’

That helps me into act two, which is like, ‘How do I throw rocks at this armor?'”
Screenwriter Anthony Grieco / @SwimCharlieSwim

P. S. Grieco is a University of Toronto graduate, a commercial actor in New York turned writer, whose passion for screenwriting landed him a gig at The Writers Store in Southern California.  He also wrote the book, The Pocket Screenwriting Guide: 120 Tips for Getting to FADE OUT with Mario O. Moreno.

Related posts:
Writing from Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Sidney Lumet on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Kelly Marcel on Theme
Shane Black in Theme
Sheldon Turner on Theme (and Resilience)
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Obligatory Scene=Theme
More Thoughts on Theme
Theme vs. Story

Scott W. Smith

 

 

“I’ve come to realise that there’s no such thing as a finished screenplay: the document is only a blueprint, and so much will change in the building. You have to allow for – and be prepared to notice, and welcome – what happens on the day, when the cameras are rolling.”
Screenwriter Emma Donoghue (Room)

“Of all the advice [Room director Lenny Abrahamson] gave me on rewriting my screenplay, one piece sticks in my mind: he asked me to write the scenes long and loose, ‘like a wildlife documentary’, and leave the cutting for him to do at the editing stage. I was intrigued by the idea that the audience would be allowed to glimpse Ma and Jack going about their days in their locked shed as unselfconsciously as chimps in the trees, and I sensed that this level of naturalism would really anchor Room’s dramatic storyline…I realised that for our child star in particular – Jacob Tremblay was just turning eight – getting him to improvise along the lines of the dialogue was producing much more naturalistic results than making him stick word for word to the script. I found myself deeply enjoying the spontaneous, fly-on-the-wall feel of his interactions with Brie Larson (playing his young Ma).”
Emma Donoghue who wrote the Room screenplay based on her novel
The Guardian article Emma Donoghue on how she wrote the screenplay for Room 

Every once in a while a young actor or actress gets an oscar nomination:
8-year-old Justin Henry (Kramer vs. Kramer)
9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wilds)
11-year-old Haley Joel Osment (The Sixth Sense)
11-year-old Brandon deWilde (Shane)
11-year-old Anna Paquin (The Piano) And Oscar-winner.

Actress Tatum O’Neal at age 10 is the youngest person to win an Oscar Award, acting opposite her father in Paper Moon. After seeing Room and reading The Guardian article by Donoghue I think the Academy missed a nomination for nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay.

Related posts (based on Stephanie Palmer’s book Good in a Room):
Learning to Be ‘Good in a Room’ (Part 1)
Learning to Be ‘Good in a Room’ (Part 2) 
‘Good in a Room’—The Blog

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

“It’s time to deal with what people say to each other when they have an emotional need to communicate.”
Steven Spielberg in 1988

Long before I started blogging in 2008 I had a couple of notebooks full magazine articles along with notes from film school and workshops (AFI, UCLA extension, Robert McKee, etc). As I’ve said before, blogging just gave me a place to pass that info to others in bite-sized chunks.

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Above is a example from American Film magazine in June of 1988 (complete with my pre-blogged highlighted sections). Here’s a succinct quote from that Dialogue on Film interview with Steven Spielberg.

Q: What is your philosophy on what constitutes good drama?

Steven Spielberg: For me, it’s someone—a protagonist—who is no longer in control of his life, who loses control and then has to somehow regain it. That’s good drama. All of my pictures have had external forces working on the protagonist. In almost every Hitchcock film, the protagonist loses control early in the first act. Then he not only has to get it back, he has to address the situation. That theme has to follow me through my films, too. 

Last night I went to see the 4-time Oscar-nominated film Room written by Emma Donoghue and directed by Lenny Abrahamson and when I came across the Spielberg quote I thought it lined up pretty well with the protagonist’s (Brie Larson) hellish situation.

Room is an emotional film and left me marveling how the filmmakers pulled it off, and feeling even more empathy for the Ohio women in real life who had to deal with a similar situation.

P.S. I also wondered after watching Jacob Tremblay’s performance in Room where all the #OscarsSoOld protests were as the 9-year-old was missing his Oscar-nomination.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

Before Sarah Heyward  became a producer and writer on Girls she was a Harvard graduate attending grad school at the University of Iowa, focused on becoming a novelist. After grad school she became an assistant on Girls.  The show’s creator, Lena Dunham, eventually read a short story Heyward wrote while attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—two weeks later Heyward was hired to write on Girls.

“The type of short stories I was writing are very similar in tone to Girls. In general, I do think – in terms of Hollywood – having a background in anything interesting – it doesn’t even have to be writing-related – is a novelty if you’re also trying to be a screenwriter. Anything, at this point, as TV is changing so much, I feel like the people writing these TV shows want writers from all different backgrounds who are going to bring a new perspective to it. It’s less focused on finding a hard comedy writer who knows exactly how to write an episode of Frasier. Just with the influx of all the cable models, you know, all these other channels that never had original programming before, like FX or AMC. They’re doing all this new stuff. And on top of that, you have Netflix and Amazon developing their own series…obviously web series and everything on the Internet. I don’t think TV as we know it is going to exist in this way for much longer. Certainly the model of sitting down at 8 pm to watch a show is already gone. Because of that, I think there are all these different ways to create TV, and it’s opening doors for people who wouldn’t necessarily fit in the old slot of how to write a TV show.”
Producer/ writer Sarah Heyward
Interview with Joanna Demkiewicz

 

“I’m telling you Iowa is incredible. We should all move to Iowa and start the revolution.”
Hannah (Lena Dunham) in Girls, Season 4 episode 2

It’s been a busy month for Lena Dunham as she’s been prominently featured in the press near the center of the film & political world in January 2016. She’s been at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah where her documentary Suited premiers tonight and she’s been stumping in Iowa for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run.   

“This is my second time in Iowa, but before I came to Iowa, I was pretending to be in Iowa. We filmed all our Girls stuff not in Iowa. I had seen tons of pictures of Iowa City, we had a location scout from Iowa and a writer from Iowa, so we had our experts in check, but I hadn’t, myself, had an opportunity to come. It was amazing when I came to Iowa City last year on my book tour because I had already had the experience of existing in fake Iowa and I was like, wow, we didn’t do that bad a job.”
Lena Dunham
The Des Moines Register 
January 11, 2016

Dunham, the creator of the HBO show Girls, is the perfect person to follow up my last post (Diablo Cody Day) about Diablo Cody winning an Oscar in 2008 for writing the Juno screenplay.  (And since I was living in Iowa at the time, the fact that Cody graduated from the University of Iowa served as inspiration for me starting this blog.)

Well, back in 2008 Dunham graduated with a degree in creative writing from Oberlin College in Ohio. While in college, in the infant days of You Tube, she was also creating short films that went viral.

“I didn’t go to film school. Instead I went to liberal arts school and self-imposed a curriculum of creating tiny flawed video sketches, brief meditations on comic conundrums, and slapping them on the Internet.”
Lena Dunham

In 2010, just two years out of college she won the SXSW Award in Narrative Fiction for her film Tiny Furniture. The film made for just $45,000 also earned Dunham Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards. (The same award Cody won back in 2008.)

That led to the opportunity to create Girls which has been on the air since 2012, and has won two Golden Globe Awards (Best Television Series—Comedy or Musical, and Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series—Comedy or Musical).

That’s right, she acts, too. And she was paid $3.6 million to write her 2014 memoir Not That Kind of Girl. I don’t exactly fit the demographics of watching/reading Dunham’s work, and haven’t actually never seen a full episode of Girls, and have been out of the loop of the controversies of her work.  But I enjoyed the quirkiness of Tiny Furniture (which is currently available on Netflix), and it’s hard not to appreciate what she’s achieved creatively and financially before she’s even turned 30. 

And I was curious what Cody thought of Dunham and found this quote:

“I absolutely love Lena Dunham. I don’t know her personally, but I’m completely obsessed with the show. I cannot believe what she has accomplished at 26. I think she is like our new Woody Allen.”
Diablo Cody
Huffington Post interview with Lori Fradkin

P.S. Last year, Dunham’s character in Girls began attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City so I thought I’d give some links that give a glimpse to the real place.

BTW—Diablo Cody got her undergraduate degree in Media Studies from the University of Iowa and when asked why she didn’t attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop she said it was easier to win an Oscar than to get into Iowa’s competitive graduate program.

Related Posts:
John Irving, Iowa & Writing (My visit to the Iowa Workshop)
(Yawn) Another Pulitzer Prize (for a Workshop graduate)
Postcard #55 (Iowa Writers’ Workshop)
The Making of Woody Allen in 10 Simple Steps
The Juno-Iowa Connection
Oberlin to Oscars (Screenwriters William Goldman and Mark Boal also both graduated from Oberlin.)

Scott W. Smith

Diablo Cody Day

“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 to Katie Couric on the NBC today show in 1999

“Unbeknownst to many outside the Midwest, over the past 15 years Des Moines has transformed into one of the richest, most vibrant, and, yes, hip cities in the country, where the local arts scene, entrepreneurial startups and established corporate employers are all thriving.”
Colin Woodward, Politico Magazine in 2016
How America’s Dullest City Got Cool

Thug Writer, University of Iowa Grad, & "Screenwriting from Iowa muse Diablo Cody &

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

Do you remember 2008?

You know, the year when subprime loans helped led to a financial meltdown as stock market prices around the world plunged. Heath Ledger, Sydney Pollack, and Paul Newman all died in 2008. Fidel Castro resigned as President of Cuba. A senator from Illinois was the first black person elected as President of the United States. And at the end of the year, investment advisor Bernie Madoff was arrested for “one big lie” (i.e. securities fraud) that resulted in an estimated $18 billions missing in client accounts.

It was an interesting year.

And way back on January 22 of 2008 I started this blog. And here we are 8 years—and 2,196 posts—later. I think that first post had about 5 views. (If you were one of them thank you.) Sometime later this year I’ll hit a million views. I’m sure there are blogs out there that get a million views a month—or even a day—but I’m pretty excited to know that what started as writing down a few thoughts into a WordPress blog while living in Cedar Falls, Iowa has been viewed so many times by people all over the world. (I think my in my last count there were views in over 180 countries.)

So I’m proclaiming this Diablo Cody Day. Because it was seeing Juno in January of 2008 and reading the story of how this Chicago native, and University of Iowa graduate, wrote the script for Juno in the suburbs of Minneapolis (and was being hailed as a new voice in Hollywood) that provided the inspiration for starting this blog.

She’s weathered a few storms since then. I’ve weathered a few storms since then. And the odds are that you’ve weathered a few storms since then. (Blockbuster video stores, not so much—though there are actually 50 of their 9,000 stores still around.) May some of those storms provide inspiration for future stories that engage and/or entertain people.

Stories that may be shot in Georgia or Louisiana, that may be produced by Amazon, ESPN, Hulu, etc. Right now I’m currently captivated like many by the Netflix docu-series Making a Murderer and the Serial podcast on the Army’s Bowe Bergdhal wandering off base in Afghanistan and being held captive by the Taliban for five years.

Movies in the past year like Spotlight, Brooklyn, and Bridge of Spies show that in capable hands we can look back on the past and have hope for the future. In filmmaking and humanity.

And in the television world there is simply no way you can keep up with the flood of quality programing. Last year NPR stated that if you watched one scripted prime-time TV series per day, you wouldn’t have enough time to watch every series.

“According to estimates provided to critics and reporters last week by the research team at FX Networks, more than 400 original scripted English-language series — just in prime time, not counting game shows, reality shows, documentary shows, daytime or nighttime talk shows, news or sports — will air on American television in 2015 before the year is out.”
Linda Holmes
Television 2015: Is There Really To Much TV?

Toss in the content creators on the internet and there are unusually good things happening in unlikely places. All I’ve tried to do in the past 8 years is pick up a few bread crumbs (from over 600 writers/directors/filmmakers) and pass them on in hopes that they’ll offer some direction and inspiration for others.

And since this blog is titled Screenwriting from Iowa, let me give a shout out to the state that birthed this blog (and where I lived from 2003-2013). This week leading up to the Iowa caucuses on February 1 there is no shortage of press coming out of Iowa as Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and the rest of the presidential hopefuls make their way across the state in search of votes.

I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the title of Politico Magazine’s article posted yesterday about Des Moines, Iowa:  How America’s Dullest City Got Cool.  Colin Woodward unpacks how a place once known as Des Boring reinvented itself;

In recent years Des Moines has been named the nation’s richest (by U.S. News) and economically strongest city (Policom), its best for young professionals (Forbes), families (Kiplinger), home renters (Time), businesses and careers (Forbes). It has the highest community pride in the nation, according to a Gallup poll last year, and in October topped a Bloomberg analysis of which cities in the United States were doing the best at attracting millennials to buy housing. “Never mind California or New York,” Fast Company declared two years back. “By some important measures, Des Moines is way ahead of its cooler coastal cousins.”

Diablo Cody going to college in Iowa City is just part of the creative gumbo stew that’s been stirring up in the Hawkeye state many years. And this blog is just another link in that chain. Thanks to both the state of Iowa and Diablo Cody for the inspiration. And thanks to all you readers whose views also inspire me to keep cranking these posts out.

Best wishes on your writing.

Related posts:
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)
2010 48 Hour Film Festival/Des Moines
San Francisco vs. Des Moines
Postcard #77 (Iowa State Capital)
Postcard #11 Des Moines 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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