Feeds:
Posts
Comments

“In the beginning, I tried to be a more cosmopolitan writer, but I realized that I was a country boy, and I had to deal with things I knew about and where I came from.”
Ernest Gaines

The odds from the start were greatly against Ernest Gaines becoming the novelist Ernest Gaines. Or the one whose work would one day be turned into a landmark TV movie that would win nine Emmys.

Imagine being born in Oscar, Louisiana during the depression. To poor black parents who were sharecroppers. And at the age six, instead of going to school, you began working in the fields picking cotton, onions, or Irish potatoes for 50 cents a day. As hard as that is to imagine, I’m sure it was a harder life for Gaines to live.

But Gaines, who died yesterday at age 86, had couple of things in his favor—and one important side hustle. His crippled aunt never walked but that didn’t stop her from cooking, cleaning, and being a strong displinarian to a houseful of kids. She was the main inspiration and guiding force in his childhood—all the more important after his parents life him behind after World War II to seek employment in California.

And in a church they used as a schoolroom five months of the year in the off-harvest season, Gaines learned to read and write. That gave him the opportunity to start his side hustle—his first writing gig. He wrote letters for the elderly people at five cents a pop. And because the people wanted him to fill the front and back of the paper, it gave him an opportunity to use some creativity beyond talking about the weather. And a writer was born. (Though he didn’t acknowlege that until many years later.)

At 15, he would join his parents in Vallejo, California just north of San Francisco. His literary world greatly expanded when he went into a library for a first time in his life. He read a wide variety of writers from around the world, and then attended Solano Community College northeast of Vallejo. That led to an opportunity to study at San Francisco State University. Two of his stories were published in the student library magazine and that opened doors for him to study at Stanford University with Wallace Stegner. 

At this point he was a long way from Oscar, Louisiana. But he would return to Oscar frequently for inspiration. He may have written in California, but the subjects were usually the people and the land of the rural South.

Two of his best knows novels are A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Both were turned into TV movies, but it was Jane Pittman that was a cultural phenomena in 1974— a few years before the miniseries Roots.

It’s the story of one woman’s journey from slavey to the Civil Rights movement. Though I was 12-13 when the movie came out, I remember clearly all the promotional material released about Cicely Tyson playing both the young and 110-year-old Pittman. Her transformation was so well received that she won two Emmys (Actress of the Year and Best Lead in a Drama). In total it won nine Emmys including John Korty’s direction and Tracy Keenan Wynn’s adaption.

My mentor and former professor Annye Refoe took a graduate class where Gaines made an appearance. I asked her what book of his she’d recommend and she said A Gathering of Old Men. That book was also adapted into a TV movie with the same title (by Charles Fuller) starring Louis Gossett Jr, Richard Widmark, and Holly Hunter.

IMG_1579

“Now that I look back on my career for the past forty-some years, I feel that I’m still writing those letters for those old people. Not only for the old, but the young as well. And not only for those I knew as a child, but for those who lived many generations before. They were not given a chance to read and write, and I was. But without their voices, had I not sat on that porch and wrote letters 55 years ago, I’m certain that I would not be sitting here tonight. After all, what else what I had to write about?”
Ernest Gaines
American Academy of Achievement summit  (heard on the What it takes podcast)

Just another example of what can rise up from unlikely places.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

“Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places. And this is a beautiful place.”
Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez

If you like comebacks and reversals then the 2018-2019 Washington Nationals are your team. There aren’t too many people in May 2019 who would have predicted that the Washington Nationals at the end of October would be World Series champs. After all, their record at that point was 19-31 and one predictor gave them a .05% of winning the World Series.  Forget the playoffs, just finishing with a winning record seemed a long shot. A common question debated was when Nationals’ manager Dave Martinez would be fired.

But last Wednesday the Nationals came back in game 7, just like they had all year, to win that game—and their first World Series championship in franchise history. And on Saturday they celebrated with a parade in Washington, D.C.

Since this is a blog with a focus on screenwriting and filmmaking, let me look at the Nationals’ accomplishment from that perspective. As I’ve mentioned before, Martinez and I went to the Lake Howell High School with him beginning to attend the year after I graduated. I was in my first year of college and working for the Sanford Herald and covered some of the games Martinez played.

IMG_7411.jpg

Here’s an article published on March 15, 1981 where I wrote “Martinez, a pitcher-left fielder, transferred from New York two weeks ago. [Coach Birto] Benjamin has high hopes for his left-handed junior.”

In a recent interview Benjamin thought Martinez could play college ball and even had  the big league potential, but he never envisioned Martinez would have the wild success he’s had as a coach and manager. Martinez turned down a lowball pro offer to play baseball at what is now Valencia College.

IMG_7338

Dave Martinez at Valencia College in 1982

In 1983 Martinez signed with the Chicago Cubs and played briefly with the Iowa Cubs in the Quad Cites. In 1986, he did something that every Little League player dreams of doing—he was playing baseball in the major leagues.

He had a 15-year career as a player, and that alone is a major accomplishment. In the whole history of Lake Howell only two players have made it to the major leagues. The second being Eddie Taubensee—who I also covered working for the Herald.

IMG_7367.jpg

IMG_7386.jpg

Eddie Taubensee a few years before he was a 6’4″ MLB player

The thing that both Martinez and Taubensee have in common is that long before they were playing Major League Baseball, they were honing their skills in Little League. Martinez in Long Island and Taubensee in Altamonte Springs. I imagine both of them were playing competitive baseball for a 10-12 years before they stepped on a major league field.

They had small victories along the way. Their talent, skill, accomplishments, hard work and potential became to shine over the rest. I don’t think screenwriting and filmmaking is any different. Except screenwriters and filmmakers sometimes think they are going to spring up to the Oscar stage from a dream they had yesterday. (Even Diablo Cody, who is the rare screenwriter who did win an Oscar in her first screenplay—Juno—said that she had been writing poetry and short stories everyday since she was 12. That was a 15+year overnight success.)

I enjoyed my year of working as a sports reporter and photographer. I watched a lot of talented players—none better than Tim Raines who in 2017 was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

IMG_7406.jpg

In 2009 I compared working screenwriters to NFL player in the post How Much Do Screenwriters Make? that has now been viewed more than 100,000 times. It was a comparison I now here a few times a year, but one I’d never heard or read before. Check it out if you’ve never read it before.

Some closing encouraging advice comes from one of my acting teachers back in the day. He actually used a baseball metaphor to encourage young actors, “Just because you can’t be Babe Ruth, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy playing the game.” You can unpack that in any way you want. But without Little League coaches enjoying the game, Martinez probably wouldn’t have honed his baseball skills at a young age. There’s not going to be another Steven Spielberg, but there are going to be filmmakers creating theatrical and streaming entertainment. And there’s going to be others all around the world that take what they learn and become content creators and making a living with their technical and creative skills.

My biggest dream at 19 years old was to be a photographer some day for Sports Illustrated magazine. But by the time I was 20 I began to tire of doing sports photography. I remember clearly thinking after one year that I didn’t want to be taking pictures of people sliding into home when I was 30-years old. (When you’re 20 you tend to think of 30 as ancient.) But looking back it was a great experience. And Dave Martinez’s success gave me a good excuse to revisit that era of my life. (An era where I didn’t have the benefit of auto focus lens or an auto-winder to take the photos below.)

IMG_7414IMG_7407IMG_7405IMG_7385.jpg

Scott W. Smith

“[Dave Martinez is] a fine role model for many. Just not, it seems, a very good big league manager.”
Thomas Boswell
The Washington Post, May 22, 2019
(A few months before Martinez led the Nationals to their first ever World Series appearance.)

“If the Nationals don’t turn it around soon, don’t be surprised if [Martinez is] the first manager fired in 2019.”
David Schoenfield,
ESPN article, May 8, 2019 

Last night, during game six of the World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals, I continued a baseball tradition from my youth. As a Little League player in the era before the internet and even cable TV, I was so in love with baseball that I would listen to baseball games on the radio. I was a fan of the Cincinnati Reds when they were nicknamed The Big Red Machine.

When they played the Atlanta Braves I was able to follow the play by play commentary from a radio station out of Georgia. And for reasons I’m not totally sure of today, I had better reception from the radio in my mom’s car. So if you can imagine a 11-14 year old in Orlando, Florida sitting in a station wagon at night listening to a baseball game, that was me.

I’ve been listening to the 2019 World Series that way as well, but on my phone and in bed. If the game is uneventful I drift to sleep like listening to a podcast. But last night I stayed up for the whole game because of the drama.

With the Washington Nationals down 2-1 there was a controversial call against the Nationals that could have potentially changed the outcome of the game and the series. Nationals’ manager Dave Martinez was so upset with the call he ended up getting ejected from the game for yelling at the umpire. But managers often do that kind of thing to fire up the troops. If that was the case, it worked. After his ejection the next batter, Anthony Rendon,  hit a two run home run putting the Nationals ahead for good.

It’s all part of what I’m calling “The Dave Martinez Redemption.” Just a few months ago, The Washington Post ran an article Dave Martinez is a good man. But he probably shouldn’t be managing the Nationals. At that point, in May 2019, the Nationals were in a slump and the season was considered a wash and columnist Thomas Boswell pointed to  “The Martinez Problem.” There was a problem somewhere, because the Nationals started the year with a win/loss record of 19-31.

Since that May article, Martinez led a team that didn’t seem destined for the playoffs, all the way to their first ever World Series appearance. And facing a rock solid Houston Astro team that was highly favored to win the series, they are now locked three games a piece going into the final game tonight in Houston.  High drama indeed.

And to add an exclamation to last night’s victory, Juan Soto did a bat drop after hitting a monster home run that gave the Nationals some insurance runs.

Time will tell if the Nationals can complete the total Dave Martinez Redemption tonight by winning their first ever World Series, but Martinez has proven his worth as a manager. And if they do win the Series, that ejection will be become legendary.

And I’m pulling for Martinez, because as I’ve written before, we both played baseball at the same high school—Lake Howell. I graduated two years before him so we never played on the same team, but we both were part of conference championship teams under coach Birto Benjamin.

The year after I graduated from high school I attended what is now Seminole State College and did a paid internship as a sports reporter and photographer for the Sanford Herald. I happened to cover the first Lake Howell baseball game of the 1981 season and watched a skinny junior I’d never heard of hit a home run in his first at bat. I remembered the name Dave Martinez after that. And I’ve followed his career since then— from playing fall ball at Valencia College to being drafted by the Chicago Cubs.

Over the decades he’s continued to make a name for himself, first as a player, then as a coach where he earned a World Series ring while coaching with the Cubs in their 2016 winning season. I imagine Martinez made a name for himself last night to a new crop of people who follow baseball only loosely. Working out at the gym this morning he was mentioned several times on ESPN (complete with footage of his arguing with the umpire), and on my drive to work he was also mentioned several times as they discussed the controversial call leading to his ejection.

Update at 11:52pm—The Washington Nationals completed their incredible year by beating the Astros and finishing World Series champs

IMG_7310.jpg

Related post:
Dave Martinez Keeps on Winning
LA vs. Washington
Silver Hawks Flying High
Screenwriting, Baseball, and Underdogs

Scott W. Smith

 

“A writer who has had experience in newspaper reporting has an advantage [of finding movie story material] because he has learned what offers human interest. If the life of the world about you seems dull, the fault lies in yourself. You are not seeing it clearly or not interpreting it rightly. Life is the basis of all drama, but you must learn not to look for stories nor even for plots, but for story material, a different thing. You must watch what people about you are doing and what is happening to them, and always where there is interesting action or change you must seek for motivation. You will learn that the nuclei of touching stories lies not in the lives of the eccentric or abnormal, but often in the lives of apparently commonplace persons. It was among the poor and humble that Dickens found lives rich in sacrifice and love.”
Oscar winning screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (first published in 1937)
page 169

P.S. Of course, I am aware that I as I wrote this post that The Joker is currently the number one box office movie (and the top grossing R-rated film ever) and is the epitome of an eccentric and abnormal person. (At least, it appears that way. I have yet to see the movie.)

I absolutely treat myself like a factory. A word factory. That’s been really helpful for me because writing is very mysterious, and the creative process is very mysterious. It’s comforting to have a few mechanical tools at hand to help balance that sense of mystery.

First of all, if you don’t have a deadline, give yourself one and take it seriously. Secondly, I am thoroughly dependent on having a daily word count as a goal that I have to hit. If I get it done in an hour, I have the afternoon off. If it takes me until midnight, it takes me until midnight. The value of that is it makes concrete a process that otherwise seems ephemeral.”
Susan Orlean, Best selling author and writer for The New Yorker
The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean on the magic and mystery of writing by Lillian Cunningham, The Washington Post

“It might have been one of the strangest nights in the history of Los Angeles, which is a city that has had its share of strange nights.”
Susan Orlean (on the 24-hour Save the Book telethon in 1987)
The Library Book, page 122

As I make my way through the audio book and paperback of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, I am constantly shaking my head of having no recollection of the events surrounding the April 29, 1986 Los Angeles Public Library that she so well documents.

The event itself was easy to overlook for most Americans because it was overshadowed by the Chernobyl disaster and the entire world was on standby wondering what the global reprcussions would be from a nuclear fallout. But I was living in Los Angeles in April of 1986 so you’d think it would be kicking around somewhere in my memory bank. I remember well the Night Stalker terrorizing the city in ’84-85, Brice Springteen’s Born in the USA tour at the L.A. Colusumn in ’85, the ’87 Whitter Earthquake, and that the movie The God’s Must Be Crazy played for months. But I’m drawing a blank about the LA Public Library fire.

And Orlean does beauitiful job talking about the events following the fire and how the city rallied restore was was lost after a million books were destroyed or damaged. While the damage to the building was covered by insurance the books were not. So a Save the Books campaign was started culminating with a 24-Hour telethon in January 1987.

The telethon was hosted by the “unconventinal”, cigar smoking televangelist The Rev. Gene Scott at his Glendale studios and University TV Network. As Orlean recounts of the around the clock telethon;

“The fund-raising goal was $2 million. Celebrities were wrangled to appear on the show reading from their favorite books. There were dozens of celebrities readers, including Red Buttons, former governor Pat Brown, Angie Dickinson, Lakers coach Pat Riley, Ernest Borgnine, Edite Albert, and Henry Kissinger. Dinah Shore read from The Prince of Tide. Charlton Heston read the last chapter of Moby-Dick. Zsa Zsa Gabor showed up but forgot to bring a book.”

The entire telethon was rerun the next day and they exceeded there goal of $2 million. The Library Book is a great read/listen. Apparently, many people are discovering the book’s second wind with it’s recent paperback release.

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 11.23.54 AM.png

While I don’t remember the library fire—or the 24 hour telethon, I do remember Gene Scott. I used to stumble across his broadcast from time to time and he was always good for an unusual five minute. I hadn’t thought about him in over a decade until recently where I read an interview with Quentin Tarantino where he commented on watching him.

Scott died in 1985 and the Los Angeles Times reported that he “earned a doctorate in philosophies of education from Stanford University in 1957, also was influenced by the late Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.” He had his share of followers and critics.

After his death NPR stated that Gene Scott was a man that all channel surfers would recognize. They said, “Scott’s on air manner and apperance were hard to forget. He cursed, and ranted, wore sombreros one day, a crown the next, and asked for money—and got lots of it.”His television show was said to be carried in 180 countries.

I don’t know if a documentary was ever done on Gene Scott, but I imagine there will be sooner or later. Perhaps that’s something Tarantino can work on in his “retirement.”

But mark Janaury 11, 1987 as one unusual day in L.A. history.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

Who doesn’t like a good origin story? Here’s one I found recently in Susan Orlean’s book The Library Book. 

[Ray] Bradbury and his wife had four young daughters. When he tried to work at home, he spent more time playing with his children than writing. He couldn’t afford and office, but he knew a rook in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library, where typewriters could be rented for ten cents an hour. It occurred to him that there would be a fine symmetry if he wrote a book about book burning at a library. Over the course of nine days in the typewriter room at UCLA, Bradbury finished ‘The Fireman,’ expanding it into a short novel. He spent $9.80 on the typewriter rental. 

‘. . .  When he finished writing the book, Bradbury tried to come up with a better title than ‘The Fireman.’ He couldn’t think of a title he liked, so one day, on an impulse, he called the chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department and asked him the temperature at which paper burned. The chief’s answer became Bradbury’s title: Fahrenheit 451. When Central Library burned in 1986, everything in the Fiction section from A through L was destroyed, including all of the books by Ray Bradbury.”
Susan Orlean
The Library Book, pages 104-105

Scott W. Smith

%d bloggers like this: