“The [MLB] draft has never been anything but a f—ing crapshoot. We take fifty guys and we celebrate if two of them make it. In what business is two for fifty a success? If you did that in the stock market, you’d go broke.”
—Billy Beane as quoted in Moneyball by Michael Lewis

“Rules are what makes art beautiful. Rules are what makes sports beautiful.”
—Aaron Sorkin

It’s Major League Baseball playoff time, so I’m going to use a little baseball inspiration to jump start getting back into blogging on a regular basis starting today.

Many years ago I was on a softball team when one night I saw the single best display of talent I’d ever seen in a softball player before or since. This guy hit three home runs batting right handed, then in his last at bat switched to hitting left handed and hit another home run. Like a mystical character he only played one game and I never saw him again. And now that I think about it, I don’t think I ever saw in professional or amateur level baseball player display such a dominant display of power.

But here’s the thing—he didn’t play professional baseball. I heard he peaked playing baseball at the University of Miami. (UM baseball teams have made 25 College World Series appearances, winning national titles four times.) Talent is funny that way. One can be at the pinnacle of success on one level and then be a bust at the next level. (Which explains why so many Heisman Trophy winners in college football have limited success in the NFL.)

The book and movie Moneyball explore the theme of how professional scouts and teams have a so-so record when it comes to knowing which athlete is going to be a star. (The first chapter of that book is titled “The Curse of Talent.”) That’s true in professional football as well—which explains why the most winning Super Bowl QB in history wasn’t drafted until the 6th round in 2000. Looking back, it’s bewildering to think that 198 players were picked ahead of Tom Brady.

But talent is tricky. And it’s funny.

Think back to Aaron Sorkin working odd jobs out of college (bartender, limo driver, singing telegrams) and being an actor in a traveling theater group doing plays for children.

“When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I traveled the South with a touring children’s theater company called The Traveling Playhouse. When I say the South, we weren’t playing in Atlanta, we were playing Jasper, Alabama. We’d do six or seven shows in elementary school gymnasiums at about ten o’clock in the morning, then pile into a station wagon, and a van carrying the costumes and sets. We did The Wizard of OzRip Van Winkle, and Greensleeves. We were paid thirty dollars a performance.”
Aaron Sorkin
Zen and the Art of Screenwriting
Interview with William Froug
Page 31

Would you have picked that guy on your team in 1983—back when he hadn’t even tried writing. Who knew he was going to be the Tom Brady of contemporary dramatic writers? He’s excelled in theater (A Few Good Men), in TV (The West Wing), and in features (The Social Network). And, like Brady, he’s still in winning form. Sorkin wrote and directed the upcoming film Being the Richardos, which Lucille Ball’s daughter, Desi Arnaz, says is “friggin’ amazing.”

Here’s a few takeaways from Sorkin’s career.

  1. He wanted to be an actor but failed, so he pivoted to becoming one of the greatest living drama writers today.
  2. I believe “Swing with your strength” is a phrase borrowed from the world of baseball. Pete Rose was a singles hitter so he just did that and accrued more hits that anyone in MLB. Sorkin’s strength is writing snappy and memorable dialogue. Rapid banter that has a winning tradition way back to vaudeville, through I Love Lucy, right up to today’s sitcoms. While film is a visual medium, and much emphasis is made on show don’t tell, Sorkin still excels in the strength of his words.
  3. He stays in his lane of writing drama. Usually drama in the workplace. You don’t see him writing super hero movies or family sitcoms. Four of his stories have been military/government related, and four of his stories revolve around TV production, so even his workplace interests are limited.

While there is God given talent, I believe that whatever talent you have can be sharpened over time. (Heck, even Tom Brady was once the 7th string quarterback his freshman year at the University of Michigan.) So here are several Sorkin-related posts from over the years that I hope you on your own writing journey. I’ll start with one of my favorites where he talks about the need to have “intentions and obstacles” in place before he stars writing. (That concept made it into my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles.)

Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles

Screenwriting vs. Finger Painting (Aaron Sorkin on the Rules of Art)

Aaron Sorkin on ‘90% of the Battle’ in Screenwriting

Aaron Sorkin on Launching a Screenwriting Career* (*Results may vary)

Screenwriter Support with Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin on ‘Steve Jobs’ and Screenwriting vs. Journalism

Screenwriting Quote #197 Aaron Sorkin)

Dialogue as Music

Aaron Sorkin in Jasper, Alabama

The West Wing, BMWs & Iowa

Aaron Sorkin on Good vs. Great

Professor Aaron Sorkin

Sorkin on Revealing Character

Aaron Sorkin on Failure

Movie Cloning (Aaron Sorkin)

Sorkin’s Emotional Drive

And I’ll end this post with another dramatic writer who has also excelled in theater, TV, and features from a 2010 post I wrote called What is Talent?

“I am not sure what talent is. I have seen moments, and performances, of genius in folks I had dismissed as hacks. I’ve watched students of my own and of others persevere year after year when everyone but themselves knew their efforts were a pitiful waste, and have seen these people blossom into superb actors. And, time and again, I saw the Star of the Class, the Observed of all Observers, move into the greater world and lack the capacity to continue. I don’t know what talent is, and frankly I don’t care.

A common sign in a boxing gym: BOXERS ARE ORDINARY MEN WITH EXTRAORDINARY DETERMINATION. I would rather be able to consider myself in that way than to consider myself one of the ‘talented’; and—if I may—I think you would, too.”
David Mamet
True and False

P.S. I think Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network is the best script written in the last 20 years. And the film that I’ve returned to the most during this pandemic is Moneyball which Sorkin created as writing with Steve Zaillian based on a book by Michael Lewis. A lot of talent came together to make those two films.

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

“I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.”
—Walt Disney

One of the perks of working in production is meeting famous celebrities

Walt Disney World opened 50 years ago today. I remember going within the first few months of its opening. Because I grew up in the Orlando area when the biggest deal was the Central Florida Fair, experiencing Disney for the first time in 1971 was surreal. It was a much smaller attraction than it is today, but I had a blast. That is until my sister crushed my heart by telling me that I wasn’t really driving that Grand Prix car—that it was on a track. She didn’t even give me a spoiler alert! Long live the Grand Prix Raceway (now known as Tomorrowland Speedway).

Here are a couple of tickets I saved from the old days. A child’s admission to Disney World in 1971 was only one dollar. (Admission for a 10-year-old today is $109.) Then you’d buy tickets/coupons to go on select rides. I remember the “E” ticket (not to be confused with the electronic eTicket today) were the big deal because it allowed you to go on these rides: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jungle Cruise, and The Haunted Mansion.

The “B” Ticket got you into the lesser attractions including the Main Street Cinema. Which, if I recall correctly, always had old Steamboat Willie movies playing.

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

Note: My goal at the beginning of the summer was to launch a podcast that has yet to happen. In fact, 2021 has proven to be the most difficult for me in just keeping up with writing blog posts. So for this post on talent, I’ve decided to reach back into past posts to grab some quotes to carve out a post today. I may do more of that in the coming days, weeks, and months. It’s been unusually hard to focus this month on writing because of various circumstances. At the moment, my brother in law is on week two of being in the hospital with COVID and the next day or two will be the most crucial. Who would have guessed in January 2020, the severe changes that were about to impact the world?

“I’ve never viewed myself as particularly talented. I’ve viewed myself as…slightly  above average in talent…Where I excel is with (a) ridiculous, sickening work ethic. While the other guy’s sleeping, I’m working. While the other guy’s eating, I’m working.”
Two time Oscar-nominated actor Will Smith (and 4-time Grammy winner)
60 Minutes Interview

“I am not sure what talent is. I have seen moments, and performances, of genius in folks I had dismissed as hacks. I’ve watched students of my own and of others persevere year after year when everyone but themselves knew their efforts were a pitiful waste, and have seen these people blossom into superb actors. And, time and again, I saw the Star of the Class, the Observed of all Observers, move into the greater world and lack the capacity to continue. I don’t know what talent is, and frankly I don’t care.

A common sign in a boxing gym: BOXERS ARE ORDINARY MEN WITH EXTRAORDINARY DETERMINATION. I would rather be able to consider myself in that way than to consider myself one of the ‘talented’; and—if I may—I think you would, too.”
Playwright and screenwriter David Mamet
True and False

“I graduated from Oberlin College in fifty-two, did the Army for two years, then went to graduate school at Columbia University for two years. It was then the summer of 1956. I was twenty-four, and I’d always wanted to be a writer. I’d shown no signs of talent. I got the worst grades in class.”
—William Goldman
Shoptalk by Dennis Brown
(Aaron Sorkin called Goldman “the dean of American screenwriting”)

I don’t particularly like [the writing process], but I don’t dislike it either. I can tell you that I’ve come to a somber acceptance that…my tastes as a consumer of movies and TV exceeds my talents, so all I can do is try my best to close that gap and to get as best a version of what it is in my head on the page.”
Screenwriter Eric Heisserer (Arrival)
Basic Brainheart podcast interview with Hannah Camacho

“Mastery is in the reaching, not the arriving. It’s in constantly wanting to close that gap between where you are and where you want to be. Mastery is about sacrificing for your craft and not for the sake of crafting your career.”
Sarah Lewis 

“Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”
International best-selling author Ann PatchettThe Getaway Car (in the collection of essays book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage)

”I’m a fast typer but I’m slow at ideas. Most of my scripts have taken probably about seven years between writing and getting made.”
—Oscar winning screenwriter Taika Waititi (JoJo Rabbit)

“If you’re looking for an excuse, you’ll find one.”
Actor/Director Denzel Washington 
60 Minutes interview December 18, 2016

“For me, it was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.”
Writer/director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption)

“You know, when you first start writing you’re going to suck. And so it’s good to keep it to yourself, until maybe you don’t suck as much.”
David Sedaris

“It took years of struggle. Years of not having anything happen, not even getting meetings, not knowing what I was really doing…Things have turned a corner.  I was really a starving artist for lot of years.  I moved to LA nine years ago, and the first five were really difficult.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Luke Davies (Lion)
Combined from PopEntertainment interview & Spook Magazine article

“No one was interested in my stuff at all. What actually got me going as far as a writing career was concerned—I’d never had any success ever and finally I met a really good buddy of mine, his name is Scotty Spiegel —he wrote Evil Dead 2. He’d just sold a big script. It was a big deal. He was involved in low budget horror films and stuff, so all his friends started calling up say, hey, would you do a re-write on my stuff? And he was like, well I can’t, I’m busy. But I have a friend of mine named Quentin maybe you should give him a call.
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

“There are two rules that I always adhere to. And that is to work hard and be brave. And I think the essence of hard work is one that’s pretty straightforward. You’ll never be the best looking, you’ll never be the tallest, the most talented, most capable, you’ll never have the most money—there will always be someone better at whatever you’re doing than you are. But you can always be the hardest working person in the room.”
Filmmaker Casey Neistat

“I think the most important thing you have to know is that it’s a very, very hard business, full of rejection and setbacks. If you don’t want to succeed really badly, you won’t. But, of course, if you get a movie made and it works, there’s nothing like it. Nothing.”
—Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally/Julie & Julia)
Tales from the Script
page 269

I’ll add more to this list as I find them—but this is a pretty good start.

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

“We’re all told at some point and time that we can no longer play the child’s game. We just don’t know when that time will be. Some of us are told at 18. Some of us are told at 40. But we’re all told.”
—Baseball scout in Moneyball

My first experiences with organized baseball. (Front row, left of center in both photos.) Johnny Bolton was a Ford Dealership in Maitland, Florida. Looks like a casting call for the movie “The Sandlot.”

In the summer of 1970, I went to a baseball game at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati and it was my first live experience with Major League Baseball. The stadium was brand new and (if my memory is correct) there were about 50,000 in attendance for that summer game. I was nine years old and had never been anywhere with 50,000 people in one place. It was mesmerizing. Our seats were in left field weren’t great, but I had nothing to compare it to so I was thrilled. Watching MLB games at that point in my life were mostly starring at a 19″ black and white TV that picked up four channels with a rabbit ears antenna. Though I was raised in Central Florida, Disney World was still a year away from opening. I don’t remember anything about the game. But I have a photograph in my mind of a banner in right field that read “Rose Garden.” It was there because that’s where Pete Rose was positioned.

If you wanted to tell the story of professional baseball in one person, you couldn’t go wrong picking Pete Rose. (The short list would include Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Ty Cobb.) But with Rose you get high levels of both success and failure—highs and lows. He holds the Major League Baseball record for total hits (4256), played in 17 All Star games, was a key player on the Cincinnati Reds who won two World Series in the ’70s—and in 1989 he became the first player since 1943 banned from baseball for life.

And while his gambling on baseball games while a manager for the Reds also prevents him from being voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, there are still several Rose references in the Hall of Fame including this jersey when he was a part of what was known as The Big Red Machine.

From Little League through high school, his gung-ho style of play was what I tried to emulate the most. When I was around 12, I got to attend a baseball clinic that Rose did at Tinker Field in Orlando. I’m seated in the back next to his right knee in the photo below. (Oddly wearing a Miami Dolphin football jersey if I remember correctly.) I don’t remember anything about that day except Rose said there was a mix-up and he didn’t have his Reds uniform with him. But it was still a cool life experience to have in your past.

My own personal baseball hall of fame with memorabilia from my youth. Including a flip book I wrote simply called “Baseball.”

I didn’t blaze any Pete Rose-like trails in my playing days, but I did make some All-Star teams and played on two of the best teams in Lake Howell school history. My senior year we had a 14 game winning streak and won our conference. (The year after I left, Dave Martinez played at Lake Howell on his way to going pro as a player, and as a manager leading the Washington Nationals in becoming the 2019 World Series champs.)

I played my last real baseball game at age 18—and never was able to grow a proper mustache.

Baseball and baseball movies have brought me many wonderful experiences and memories over the years. Rose being banned from baseball didn’t hit me like a ton of bricks because I was a grown man and had seen plenty of the darker side of humanity by then.

My next post will look at talent as it relates to baseball, filmmaking, and screenwriting.

P.S. Unfortunately, the real story of interest to my playing days may be one of the guys I played baseball with in high school went on to be known as “Columbian Jake” where he became involved in underage sex tourism in Medellin—a bad career choice—and ended up getting busted and died allegedly by suicide in a Columbian prison in 2017. I’m sure there is a story there, but I really don’t care to know any more than what I read in a couple of articles. How in the world did this post start out talking about Little League baseball in Florida and end up with a dead gringo in a prison in Latin America? Because truth is stranger than fiction.

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

Wearing baseball hats has been a staple throughout my career working in production. And the trend started way before I ever picked up a camera back when I started playing Little League baseball as a kid. (More on that tomorrow as I continue a thread of posts centered around my recent visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.)

The first baseball hat I fell in love with was the San Francisco Giants. Back in 1969-1970 the trio of Giants I enjoyed watching play were Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, and Willie Mays. Long before I developed any kind of design aesthetic, I was drawn to the simplicity of the black hat with orange “SF” letters. (The orange is RGB 241/91/40 for those keeping score.)

I was reminded of that at the Hall of Fame when I saw the 1970 Topps baseball poster of McCovey (pictured below). I had that fold out mini-poster as a kid and may still have in a file somewhere. Though I eventually became a lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan, I wore a Boston Red Sox hat to Cooperstown (photographed here with statues of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams—who both played for the Red Sox).

I wear many different hats because they remind me of teams, players, cities, friends and experiences. I did a quick scan of photos over the years where I wear a wide assortment of hats. Here’s a few of them with some snapshot stories.

At the Hall of Fame with statues of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. (Seeing a Boston Red Sox game in Fenway Park is one of my favorite baseball memories.)
BERC hat which stood for Broadcast Equipment Rental Company. I was a driver for them in film school when they were located in Hollywood near the classic Cinerama Dome. Cool gig that first got me on studio lots when I was 21.

Film school class in LA during the Fernandomania era when the Dodger’s Fernando Valenzuela became the only player to win Rookie of the Year and the Cy Young Award in the same season
Cincinnati Reds hat on shoot in Chicago
Documentary shoot in Samaria, Russia

New York City shoot overlooking Hoboken, NJ (where they shot “On the Waterfront”)

Setting up LA Raiders photo shoot when they trained in El Segundo, CA. (Not far from Compton.)
Photo shoot in Pasadena, California before UCLA played in the 1984 Rose Bowl. The football scenes from classic Harold Lloyd film The Freshman (1925) were shot in the Rose Bowl.

And in the summer of ‘84 I stopped in beautiful Jackson Hole, Wyoming on a cross country trip. Shane was shot in Jackson Hole.

Paramount Studios hat somewhere in Southern California with my photographer friend Alex
Rockin’ a Nikon D70 cap for a Speed Channel shoot in Iowa around 2005
Kingston, Jamaica in 2008
Directing short film at artist/filmmaker Paco Raque Rosic’s (@pacorosic) studio
Minnesota Twins hat during Disney World shoot in 2013. (I used to watch the Twins play spring training games in Orlando.) Watching Rod Carew bunt during batting practice was poetry.
I even wear a baseball hat when I’m not working
Glacier National Park in Montana (2019)
Production COVID-style in 2020. Mickey Mouse design on side of hat reminds me of the great quote by Walt Disney, “Never forget that it all started with a mouse.” Before Disney created Mickey Mouse he grew up in the small town of Marceline Missouri and had a nervous breakdown in Kansas City when his studio struggled to be profitable. Steps along the way to being the person with the most Academy Awards in history (22).

P.S. Over the years baseball hats have been staples for male and female writers and directors probably because it makes worrying about your hair one less thing to worry about. (And they comes in handy for sun protection on location shoots for those of us who have less hair than we used to.) But for me, it’s all rooted in my love of baseball.

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

It took a few decades, but back in June (when there was a little lull in the COVID pandemic) I visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. I’ll unpack in tomorrow’s post why it was such a meaningful trip. But for today, I’ll just leave you my favorite photo from the day when I waited for the crowd to dissipate and the sun to shine into baseball’s most sacred hall.

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

“People will come to Iowa, for reasons they can’t even fathom.”
—Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in Field of Dreams

All eyes in the baseball world were on Iowa on Thursday night for MLB’s Field of Dreams game between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees. And Iowa did not disappoint.”
—Aaron Marner
Des Moines Register

There are a lot of grand movie entrances. Two that come to mind are Rose (Kate Winslet) and her giant hat in Titanic and the Ringo Kid (John Wayne) twirling his rifle in Stagecoach. But on some list of 100 great film entrances has to be the entrance of the baseball players emerging from a cornfield in Iowa in Field of Dreams.

Last night in Dyersville, Iowa, Kevin Costner got to make his own grand entrance emerging from an Iowa corn field—followed by the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees. As a lifestyle baseball fan, I can’t say that Major League Baseball ever fully recovered from the double black eye of the strike back in the 90s, followed by the MLB steroid scandal.

But they took steps yesterday to add to baseball folklore by having the Yankees and the White Sox play a game near where they shot Field of Dreams movies back in the 1980s. (I think it was the first MLB game ever played in Iowa.) The TV announcers keep talking about a magical vibe the place had.

I’ve visited the Field of Dreams site a couple of times when I lived in Iowa. When I started the Screenwriting from Iowa … and Other Unlikely Places in Ceder Falls, Iowa 13 years ago, the mythology of Field of Dreams (screenplay by writer/director Phil Alden Robinson from a book by W.P. Kinsella) was definitely on my mind. What may get lost in the backstory of Field of Dreams is that Kinsella had an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. A pretty good foundation for Robinson, Costner and the others to build upon.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) and Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) also graduated from Iowa and it’s been fun all these years to go back to that well from time to time. People may forget that in 2008 just the idea of screenwriting (and filmmaking) from Iowa and other unlikely places was a radical (or tongue in cheek) concept. But fast forward to 2021 in a post-COVID world and you see that it’s no longer so bizarre. Your favorite movie or streaming show is more likely to come from the state of Georgia than Los Angeles.

The cost of living and quality of life in LA is causing more than a few creatives to trade LA for Austin, Texas. Which, of course, has its own established film community. Vancouver has proven to be a film hot spot. Zoom calls have allowed established writers to retreat to states throughout the US. If I wanted to call it a day for this blog and say “my work is done” this would be a good day to do it.

But … I think I have a few more posts in me. And I still have to get on the ball and get my podcast rolling. I don’t know what the future of movies will be—or how many movie theaters will survive these odd times—or if people even will return to the movie going business as we once knew it—but I’m pretty sure people will still want to be entertained as they have throughout the history of civilization.

In recent posts, I’ve been recounting some places I visited on my vacation back in June and July. It’s fitting that my next post will be about going to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY on my birthday. It was a trip I’d been planning since I was 10 years old.

For those of you who missed the game last night, here’s all the drama of the final dream ending (at least for Tim Anderson). Hollywood couldn’t have done it better.

P.S. Whoever came up with that idea to play the game in Iowa last night deserves a nice bonus.

P.P.S. Just realized after I wrote this post the Iowa-connection of two of the movies I referenced. Rose in Titanic (as a 103 woman) lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and John Wayne was born in Winterset, Iowa.

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

“He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.”
—A description of the vengeance of Ahab in ”Moby Dick” written by Herman Melville
(Something Gregory Peck conveyed well as Ahab in the movie version.)

Here’s my breakdown of John Huston’s Moby Dick (from the screenplay by Ray Bradbury and Huston, and based on Herman Melville’s novel). Keep in mind that this came out in 1956, the same year as Giant (with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean) and The Searchers (with John Wayne), and three years before Ben Hur (with Charlton Heston). Back when free TV was starting to make inroads into American homes. Hollywood responded with giant spectacles to separate themselves from the small screen.

Opening image: A young man walking through the countryside carrying a backpack. Very similar to the opening of First Blood with John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) wandering the countryside.

Moby Dick opening
First Blood opening

Act 1: A young man named Ishmael arrives in New Bedford, Massachusetts, looking to have a great adventure on a whaling ship. This is set up in the first five minutes. Being an outsider and to new town, he’s told he needs permission from the locals in a pub. At the 6-minute mark Captain Ahab is introduced in passing. Ishmael is accepted by the whalers. That night he uncomfortably shares a room—even a bed—with a cannibal named Queequeg. He goes to church and hears a sermon about Jonah. He and Queequeg join captain Ahab’s ship. The ship is loaded with provisions. They hear a strange prophesy from a man on the docks who says his name Elijah. They set off for what is intended to be a three year voyage. The women of the town watch as the large ship named Pequod leaves port.

Act one ends on a wide shot of the ship heading out to sea and fades to black at 29:36.

Act 2: Life aboard the ship. VO narration explaining that the crew who came from the ends of the earth. Introduction of other key characters (Pip, Starbuck, Stubbs). The crew scrubs the decks. We see the blacksmith, harpooners, and a carpenter. No sign of Captain Ahab but we hear his peg leg walking the deck at night while others sleep. He’s a mysterious man. One who lost his leg hunting the white whale.

At 35 minutes Ahab addresses the crew and says they are to “look for the white whale.” He nails a Spanish gold ounce doubloon to a mast saying whoever first spots the white whale gets the coin. It’s obvious that this is an obsession for Ahab, and he works the crew into a frenzy to hunt Moby Dick to the death.

The crew later dumps some exposition about the dangers of whaling and the legacy of Moby Dick. “Are you trying to scare us?” That discussion is interrupted by the cry “Thar she blows” as a whale is spotted at the 41-minute mark. At this point, the movie shifts over to documentary-style shooting for the sequence of how a whaling ship operates in full gear as they hunt, capture, and then cut and boil the whale blubber into oil that will eventually keep “lights burning in a thousand homes.” When done they cast the whale bones into the sea and have a grand celebration with drinking, music, and dancing. It’s one of the best sequences in the film and last about 6 minutes.

But Ahab does not participate in the celebrations, instead, he is studying his maps and charts for when he has the best chance to find the white whale. He gets some push back from Starbuck who says he came to hunt whales, not to partake in one man’s vengeance. Ahab says the crew is behind him. Starbuck senses impending doom.

They sail around the Cape Horn far from home, and Ishmael gets his chance to climb up the spotter’s area high above the boat. He’s having the great adventure he was hoping to find— “Removed from the cares of all the people of the land.” Finally he gets to chance the yell, “Thar she blows.” But what’s different about this spotting is it’s not just one whale, but many. The crew jumps again to action and they capture whale after whale.

It appears to be a great success, but Ahab seems less thrilled. A fellow ship comes along the Pequod and the Captain ends up telling Ahab that he spotted the white whale a month ago—off the Cape of Good Hope heading to Madagascar. This causes Ahab to call off the hunt and to set sail at the 61-minute mark. The crew can’t believe they would leave such a grand harvest. They see no reason. Ahab says, “I give no reasons Mr. Stubbs, I give orders.” They cut their lines to the whales and set sale.

A debate is started with some of the crew whether Ahab is mad. Will a mutiny take place? Starbuck says that Ahab is “a champion of darkness.” Starbuck’s concerns are overruled by the others. Later they get to the waters where Ahab thinks he will meet Moby Dick and he rejuvenates the crew to look for the white whale and earn the gold.

Things take a turn for the worst when a man falls overboard and the can’t save him. Then the sea becomes calm and the wind still leaving them dead in the water for the time being. Dullness sets in. It’s the opposite of a great adventure. One of the crew thinks they are cursed.

The cannibal Queequeg tosses bones “which tell everything” and it’s like a spell comes over him and he says “goodbye” and asked that the carpenter to make a casket his size that floats. There’s an impending doom of some sorts. Then someone shouts “Thar she blows” and Ahab looks out to see Moby Dick at the 79-minute mark.

They put boats in the water despite it being nighttime, but the whale goes underwater. He breaches the water and appears to swim away. False hope. There is no wind, so the crew of the Pequad will have to row to pick up the wind. As they row until exhaustion, Ahab becomes more tyrannical. They do pick up the wind and Ahab gives the gold doubloon to the one who first spotted the white white.

Ahab takes the occasion with the crew gather to double down on his quest. He tells them that when they capture Mody Dick that they will split his share, “My 10% of this entire voyage.” This pep talk works, and they shout out cheers at the prospects.

At 85-minutes a fellow ship out of New Bedford passes them. Ahab shouts out asking if they’ve seen the white whale. They say they have just 10 miles away. It turns out that the captain lost his 12-year-old son in an accident at sea and asks Ahab to help search for him. Ahab replies that he won’t help as he seeks the white whale. No time to waste. Later Ahab pledges “death to Moby Dick” and the screen fades to black at the end of Act 2 at the 89-minute mark, leaving the last 26 minutes for the third act.

ACT 3:

In pursuit of Moby Dick, a mighty storm kicks up and instead of playing in safe by lower the sails, Ahab calls for full sails to be out risking the crew’s life as the men hold on from being swept away. With all hands on deck, the waves crash over the boat. When one on the crew attempts to cut the sail, Ahab threatens to run him through with a harpoon. That’s when the mysterious lights of Saint Elmo’s Fire shines in the sky. Ahab see it as a sign that he will be led to the white whale. Later on a calm day, Ahab reflects on his first whale hunt. Starbuck arms himself with a small pistol and pleads one more time to Ahab to head home and give up his unreasonable quest. Starbuck pulls out his gun on Ahab. Ahab asks what ails him and why he trembles and Starbucks regrets “not having the balls to slaughter thee and save the whole ship’s company from being dragged to doom.”

When the crews smells a coral reef, Ishmael recalls the prophecy before he boarded the boat that a day would come when the sea would smell like land and Ahab would die and rise again. Once again, “Thar she blows!” is shouted as Moby Dick is spotted again. Game on with the clock running and just 13 minutes left in the movie.

Ahab gets in one of four smaller boats to purse the white whale. All four boats land harpoons in Moby Dick and Ahab thinks they’ve finally gotten him, but Moby Dick proves relentless and attacks them. Ahab is in the water when Moby Dick swims by and he reaches out to grab the ropes from a harpoon that is on the side of the whale. Ahab stabs the whale with the harpoon before the whale submerges. When the while whale emerges, Ahab’s intangible on the side of the whale, presumably dead. Moby Dick attacks the remaining small boats before ramming the large ship. The Pequod begins to sink.

Just when all seems lost, the coffin that’s made to float pops to the surface giving Ishmael a lifesaver. He floated on it for a day and a night until the ship Rachel found him. “I only escaped alone to tell thee.”

The End.

Total run time 1 hour and 56 minutes.

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

“Now is the time in my career to do the good book, just because it would make a good movie….”
—Writer/director Quentin Tarantino
ReelBlend podcast, July 5, 2021

In the past week I’ve listen to over 10 hours of interviews from various podcasts of Quentin Tarantino talking about his new novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. One of the most common questions is what will his tenth and final film be. Here’s a short list of possibilities that Tarantino has uttered into the world or others have speculated would be a good option for him to pursue.

An R-rated Star Trek

A remake of Reservoir Dogs (his first film) with an all-black cast

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Part 2

Kill Bill, Part 3

First Blood (sticking closer to David Morrell’s novel verses the 1982 version starring Stallone as John Rambo)

Lady in Red a remake of the 1979 film written by John Sayles, but with a proper budget and Tarantino’s 30 years of directing experience

Personally, I’d love to see the new dad Tarantino do a Disney kid’s film for his reportedly final movie. But since he’s vowed to never work with Disney after a dispute over a screening of The Hateful Eight, I’ll stick with him doing Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Here are some of my reasons:

  1. A chance for one of the greatest American filmmakers to outdo another great American filmmaker (John Huston) in doing the definitive version of one of the classic American literary works. (Huston, who directed the 1957 version, said he could never finish reading Melville’s long novel.)
  2. Moby Dick is a violent revenge story, with a layer of transcendence. (Shades of Kill Bill/Pulp Fiction and other Tarantino films). He could have Samuel L. Jackson give the sermon on Jonah.
  3. Having just been to the Whaling Museum in Nantucket in June, I was surprised to find just how eclectic and multicultural the whaling industry was 200 years ago. In re-reading the book for the first time in probably three decades, one of the things that stood out to me was how Nantucket whaling ships dominated the market attracting whalers from around the globe to make up crews: Native Americans, Africans, Italians, Chinese, Tahitian, Irish, English, Spanish, French, Icelanders—basically everywhere.
  4. The ultimate hang-out scenario. Tarantino loves hang-out movies and once said Rio Bravo was one of his favorite hang-out movies. There the cowboys on a cattle drive have enough down time to have Ricky Nelson breakout his guitar and sing a song with Dean Martin.

Of course, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a mini-plot, hangout movie. Other hangout movies Tarantino likes are Fandango and Big Wednesday. As whalers went further and further out to sea they were gone for as many as three or four years at a time. Lots of hangout downtime. In chapter 53, Melville writes about what was called a “gam” where boats would met out at sea far from home (like the South Pacific). Little social get togethers on the high seas to trade stories, news, and songs.

5. Captain Ahab is one of the great characters in literary history. Though Gregory Peck didn’t not care for his performance in the 1956 film version, it was one of his more memorable roles. Other fine actors to tackle the role of Ahab include John Barrymore, Patrick Stewart, and William Hurt. While the dangerous whaling business was a young man’s game, the captain and his first and second mates were older. The older and more weathered Cruise (and his laser focus) could pull off the single mindedness that Ahab has in his quest to find the white whale. It would also help Cruise in his quest for an Oscar. (And Tarantino is a fan of Cruise’s work and the two even met to talk about the possibilty of Cruise playing the role of Cliff in Once Upon (the one in which Brad Pitt won an Oscar). Can you hear Cruise saying, “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me” or “I don’t give reasons, I give orders!”?

6. Now while Tarantino has a list of actors he’d like to work with, one of the actors that Cruise said he’d like to work with is Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson. Tarantino’s Moby-Dick would allow that opportunity.

Here is how Melville describes the 6’7″ Queequeg (who has “otherworldly tattoos” and sleeps with a Tomahawk):

“He looked like a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor. Whether it was, too, that his head being shaved, his forehead was drawn out in freer and brighter relief, and looked more expansive than it otherwise would, this I will not venture to decide; but certain it was his head was phrenologically an excellent one. It may seem ridiculous, but it reminded me of General Washington’s head, as seen in the popular busts of him. It had the same long regularly graded retreating slope from above the brows, which were likewise very projecting, like two long promontories thickly wooded on top. Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.”

Queenqueg is from an island “not down in any map” but thought to be in Polynesia. The image of The Rock tossing a harpoon would definitely be included in the trailer.

7. Melville’s Moby Dick starts out from the perspective of Ishmael, who is a polymath who understands ancient history, poetry, philosophy, Shakespeare, biblical scholarship, zoology, and enlightenment anthropology. I’m not sure who would play him, but it’s the person that Tarantino could funnel his intellectual stream of thought.

8. Tarantino says his last film will not be something “frivolous” and Moby-Dick would be anything but frivolous. And since his script for Jackie Brown was based on an Elmore Leonard novel it’s not like he’s breaking a sacred rule by using someone else’s work as a foundation.

9. Details and rabbit trails. Both Melville and Tarantino love to dive into minutiae. One of the reasons Melville’s book is so long is that he seemingly covers not only every aspect of life aboard the Pequad, but a beginner course in Cetology. (Just what every high student steeped in rapid digital technology wants to spend a class assignment learning about between watching and posting YouTube and TikTok videos.)

But Tarantino has also stated that there is a 99% chance that his final film will an original story/screenplay. And while he says he could change his mind, he says that he doesn’t see trying to “out epic” Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. He sees his final film being more like the epilogue of a book. Maybe a video store-centered story in the style of High Fidelity will be how Tarantino rounds out the feature film side of his career. Back to his roots.

But it was fun to speculate.

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

In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman’s Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot. I am sure that I did not.
Moby Dick, Chapter 6, written by Herman Melville

I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw the 1956 version of Moby Dick, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t know the director (John Huston), the star (Gregory Peck), or the actor playing Father Mapple (Orson Welles). It was probably something I stumbled upon in my youth while watching TV on a rainy Saturday afternoon. What I do remember is the minister climbing into the pulpit shaped like a boat. It was visually stunning.

Here’s the sermon that Welles reportedly did in one take. It’s not the sermon on the mount, and I don’t know how theologically accurate the sermon is, but Welles has quite a commanding delivery. (The film version sermon written by Ray Bradbury with the director John Huston is significantly shorter than the book version Melville wrote in chapter 9.)

Last week, I revisited the film version of Moby Dick after part of my recent vacation took me to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The film was not shot in New Bedford, but there is a ship shaped pulpit in Seaman’s Chapel there. (When I stopped by on July 4 it was closed for the holiday, so I could only take exterior photos.) Moby Dick author Herman Melville visited this church in 1840 before setting out to sea on a whaling boat.

I imagine someone has written extensively on sermons in movies, but here’s a short list of movies I came up with.

On The Waterfront (1954)

The Apostle (1997)

Tender Mercies (1983)

Sister Act (1992)

I’ll Give My Life (1960)

Places of the Heart (1984)

The Preacher’s Wife (1996)

The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Elmer Gantry (1960)

Leap of Faith (1992)

MARJOE (1972)

The last three on that list could be filed under hypocritical preachers. And the last one I’d never seen or even heard about until writer/director (and encyclopedia of film history) Quentin Tarantino mentioned the name Marjoe Gortner in passing on his recent interview with Joe Rogan.

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

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