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“How did I learn screenwriting? Endless hours at the typewriter, then the computer, which came along later. It was really a lot of applied time and effort and self-study. Which is the way most people learn.”
Writer/director Frank Darabont

Long before Shonda Rhimes signed a contract with Netflix for $100 million, she graduated from a series of private schools, Marian Catholic High School in Chicago, Dartmouth College, and and MFA from USC School of Cinematic Arts. Being smart, talented, and driven, I don’t know exactly what scholarships and grants Rhimes received back in the ’80s and ’90s when she was in school, but today that education has a list price of over $500,000.

Perhaps that’s why she gives the following advice to young people interested in going to film school. (And this was before a global pandemic shook up the economy and film industry in ways that will take months or years to sort out.)

“I think that USC was really instrumental for me in getting me contacts and getting me acclimated. I came to Los Angeles not know a single person, and getting an internship, getting to know people, getting the introductions to things—USC was very helpful for that. Here’s what I think, ’cause I think film school is invaluable in that it’s an amazing little lab. And I did come in knowing a lot about production because of it, and that was really helpful as well. But I think it terms of just financially if you are hurting for money if you have to take out a lot of student loans, if there’s not a scholarship waiting for you, and you are worried about that—and frankly it’s different now. Student loans back when I went to school (because I’m an old lady) and going to school now are just different. So, to me, if you have to make the choice between going to film school, and coming out to L.A. and getting a job as a PA [production assistant] on a set, or a job as a PA in some writer’s office or something like that, get the job. Because I think there’s a lot you can get done with you writing at night, and getting a job during the day, and working your butt off and making contacts that way. I think it’s very, very, very expensive to go to school right now. And while I think that everybody should get a college education, I’m not necessarily sure you need a film school education.”
—Writer/Creator Shonda Rhimes  (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal)
MasterClass, Take the Job Over Film School

Now, you don’t need to do much digging to find production assistants in Los Angeles today complaining about the low pay and long hours of working as a PA in the film industry. On top of living in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. On top of, as of this writing, potentially being laid-off or underemployed because of the shutdown over the coronavirus.

It’s a hard business. Would Rhimes have had the same success if she hadn’t taken the educational route she took? We’ll never know. But we do know there are filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Tyler Perry who’ve had phenomenal success without ever attending college. (In fact, both of them dropped out of high school.)

But you have to create. And you have to get good enough at creating something that someone will pay you to create more and you can make a living. That’s the game. And one thing this pandemic has taught us is people still need entertainment (and toilet paper). Actual movie theaters may decline in coming months and years, but streaming content is in ultra growth mode. (Amazon, Netflix, YouTube and others have all had recent jumps in daily viewership.)

Be as creative getting an education as you are with writing stories and creating videos with your friends. Avoid getting monster student loans that follow you for decades and drag you down professionally with house payment-like monthly payments.

Look at inexpensive community colleges with solid digital media programs. (Some two-year schools now offer four-year degrees.) And, yes, there are good film schools out there that aren’t over-the-moon expensive. If you picked up basic production skills in high school, there’s a good chance you can find an entry level production position as soon as the country is back up running again.  “Hire for attitude, train for skill” was an popular expression way back when I went to film school back in the ’80s—and probably long before that.

Which brings up some bonus advice from Rhimes that is helpful if you move to New York, L.A., Atlanta or stay right where you are and take a entry-level PA job:

“A thing that I think can be really helpful for people when they get a job, and people don’t seem to know this right now, and it’s feels very obvious. If you get a job in the industry making someone coffee, making someone copies, running someone’s errands, you better make the best coffee they’ve ever had. And it better be with a smile. The ones that seemed flat out pissed that they’re there, or frustrated, or lazy, or entitled, you want them to go away.  Because you think, man, they’re just sucking the air from the room. . . . People that have a great attitude are the ones that I always end up saying, ‘What’s your script about?’ or ‘What are you doing? What are you interested in?’ Those are the people that get noticed and get their scripts read, and get advice. And get a chance. Because you think, man, they’re working hard.”
—Shonda Rhimes
MasterClass, Do Grunt Work with a Smile

Writer/director Lulu Wang is the most recent filmmaker who did a version of what Rhimes talks about. She did not go to film school but did get her undergraduate degree. (I think she took one or two film/photography classes.) Then she moved to L.A. and did various film-related assistant jobs and wrote and produced her own stuff, networked, until she got the opportunity to make Farewell. Check out the post Lulu Wang’s Day Job Before ‘The Farewell.’

Before Scott Beck and Bryan Woods wrote A Quiet Place they also decided to not got to film school since they’d been making films together since sixth grade. They did get communication degrees before moving to Los Angeles where they had a series of small successes before hitting it big. Read the post How Do You Break Into the Film Industry Without Any Connections to see their abridged version of how they did it.

And lastly, if you‘re into hacks and shortcuts, let me link to a post I wrote back in 2003 that’s one of my favorites on the subject—Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcut.’ 

P.S. For those of you graduating from high school or college in 2020, I know this is not how you envisioned the final months of school ideally ending.  But you’ll earn a layer of resilience that will serve you well throughout life. Go back and watch The Shawshank Redemption (1994) again with 2020 glasses. One of the main reasons that film is currently the #1 rated movie of all time on IMDB is that going through a lot of crap in life is a universal experience.

“Hope is a good thing…maybe the best of things.”
—Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption
Written by Frank Darabont, based on a story by Stephen King
(Darabont was born in a refugee camp, immigrated with his family to the U.S.,  and also did not go to college. He started his Hollywood career as a PA on low budget movies and writing on the side until he got good enough to be paid for doing it.)

Additional related posts (for those without wealthy parents) and a great ending quote from Amazon’s Ted Hope:
Is Film School Worth It?  A post I wrote as a response to The $330,000 Film School Debt.
What’s It Like to Be a Struggling Writer in L.A.?
Scriptnotes Ep 422: ‘Assistants Aren‘t Paid Nearly Enough’

“If I ran a film school, I would require the students to make a feature film for just a thousand dollars. They’d learn tricks that they could apply for the rest of their lives, no matter how poorly the movie turned out.”
Ted Hope
Hope for Film, page 15

Scott W. Smith 

“In 1968, Allen [Daviau] and I started our careers side by side with the short film AMBLIN’. Allen was a wonderful artist, but his warmth and humanity were as powerful as his lens. He was a singular talent and a beautiful human being.”
—Steven Spielberg

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 1.52.26 PM

Cinematographer Allen Daviau died last week from complications due to COVID-19. He was nominated for five Academy Awards in Best Cinematography for his work on Bugsy, Avalon, Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple and E.T. the Extra-Terrestial. (All incredibly done in a ten year run.)

He was part of the visual team that created one of the most iconic shots in movie history—Henry Thomas and E.T. magically riding in the air on a bicycle, silhouetted by the moon.

It’s hard to watch that scene on YouTube in 2020 knowing what a powerful moment that was when the movie hit theaters in 1982. I was in film school at the time and did not have cable TV or a VHS machine. (The majority did not back then.) So I went to a packed theater and had a shared mystical movie experience.

The sole Oscar-nomination for E.T. was for Melissa Mathison’s script. A script and that gave the film its mystical, spiritual aspect. This is how she described the interior of the space ship, ” We are in a greenhouse—a Gothic cathedral of a structure.” Much as been written about the death and resurrection of E.T. as well as his healing powers.

From the script I have, the “moon shot” isn’t even on the page. It just says:

EXT. SKY —NIGHT

The bicycle glides five feet over the tall grass and circles the landing site. 

                                                  ELLIOTT
                             Not so high! Not so high!

E.T. feels Elliott’s joy, and in the excitement of his own triumph, E.T. allows the ride to continue. The bicycle rises to the treetops. Elliot rides the bicycle, pedaling as hard as he can, steering through the treetops. He screams, laughing. 

Nothing about an iconic silhouetted “moon shot.”

Here’s what the “moon shot” looks like brought to life.

I’m not sure what role Daviau had in that shot. Oscar winner and effects cameraman Mike McAlister scouted for a week to find the right location and spent two night shooting it in Nicasio, California. All for a shot not originally in the script, but one that Spielberg obviously thought was necessary.

And Daviau was the director of photography on the film so one way or another that shot was his responsibility.  I was fortunate to hear Daviau speak when I was in film school, and while I don’t remember anything about that talk, he left images that I’ll never forget.

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Empire of the Sun (1987)

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The Color Purple

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Bugsy

P.S. A little more tucked inside Daviau  credits is the lesser remembered by the masses Fearless (1993). Written by Radael Yglesias and directed by Peter Weir, it is well worth your time to revisit the story of a man (Jeff Bridges) surviving a plane crash. (And another film that has a trail of writings about the spiritual aspects of that movie, including this one from the almways informative site Cinephilia & Beyond; Peter Weir’s ‘Fearless’ as a Soulful Slice of Life That Gently Examines the Human Condition.)

Related ASC article: The Cinematography of E.T.

 

Scott W. Smith

“What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.”
—David Simon, creator of The Wire
The New Yorker 2007

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My current favorite podcast is The Rewatchables where Bill Simmons and other talk about films that people watch over and over again. If you’ve never hear it before check out Simmons’ solo deep dive on Cast Away. 

Also on The Ringer network is The Wire: Way Down in the Hole which launched yesterday. Hosts Jamele Hill and Van Lathan will be doing a breakdown on every episode of The Wire. 

I missed the whole Wire train back when HBO launched it back in 2002. But the David Simon created show is on many all-time best of TV lists, and is now on Amazon Prime, so it’s time for me to fill in that gap on a acclaimed TV program that has college classes devoted to studying the struggles in West Baltimore.

Scott W. Smith

 

“Look, I don’t have the vision or the voice of Martin Luther King or James Baldwin or Jesse Jackson or even of Jackie Robinson. I’m just an old ballplayer. But I learned a lot as a ballplayer. Among other things, I learned that if you manage to make a name for yourself—and if you’re black, believe me, it has to be a big name—then people will start listening to what you have to say. That was why it was so important for me to break the home run record.”
—Hank Aaron
I Had a Hammer

Tomorrow I’ll return with more Coronavirus Writers’ Room posts, but today I thought I’d share something special. Like a lot of people on lockdown during this pandemic, I’ve been spending some time sorting through my stuff. Call it a forced spring cleaning.

This was my recent find—a signed photo of baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron. I was 13 years old when he broke Babe Ruth’s all time home run record.  Even though I was a Cincinnati Reds fan, I was a baseball fan that loved the whole build up to Aaron’s historic achievement.

At some point, I remember writing a letter to Aaron via the Braves organization. And some time later the signed photo below came in the mail. I was young and naive enough to think that life was always going to go as smooth.

This was also back in the day long before autographs were a big business and forgery was the issue it is today. Aaron has a distinct signature and it lines up well with others I’ve seen online, so I’m going to believe it’s 100% authentic. Thank you Mr. Aaron and the Atlanta Braves for the cherished memento.

I’ve kept it in safe keeping in a filed sleeve all these years, but in the spirit of Marie Kondo’s concept of sparking joy—I’m now going to get it framed and have it on display.

It was many decades after Aaron retired when I fully understood his accomplishment. He not only became the home run king, but he did it under immense pressure of hate mail and death threats. One letter was a blunt as “Retire or die.” He did eventually retire after a great career playing baseball and today is a senior vice president with the Braves.

Hank_1436

This is what the home run looked like on April 8, 1974.

If you’re unfamiliar with Aaron, read his autobiography I had a Hammer, and check out the video below.

P.S. And since the start of  MLB has been delayed with the coronavirus, Ken Burns has made his Baseball series (produced with Lynn Novick) available on PBS for free.  

Scott W. Smith 

The continuing fictitious conversation between OLD PRODUCER (OP)—who’s 99-years-old— and YOUNG WRITER (YW).  Their goal in this two-person team (communicating online via Zoom, is to develop (in a free-wheeling style)  a coronavirus-like story. (Part 1, Part 2,  Part 3).

YW: Since we landed on centering on a high school senior as the hero of our story, I thought I’d check out what I could find online. Found a whole bunch of stuff about how disappointing it is to potentially miss out on the big finally the end of their senior year. I dropped the links into our look book file.

OP: Disappointing equals conflict. Let’s see what you found.

OP: That’s right in line with what we were talking about yesterday. No prom, no senior trips, no softball, no baseball, no tack and field, scholarships will be missed, they can’t visit colleges, and no graduation. 

YW: And those students used words like sadness, heart break, complicated, confusing, as well as admitting to crying.

OP: Those videos were a cross section of California, Florida and Ohio showing a unique connection they have. If our show dropped on Netflix on this Friday, we’d probably get 95% of all high school seniors watching it. 

YW: There’s a high school in Chicago that did songs on from West Side Story that they’d been rehearsing, but wouldn’t be able to perform live.

OP: That’s inspiring. Did you know that Robert Wise not only directed the film version of West Side Story, but he was the editor on Citizen Kane?

YW: I did not know that. I did know he directed The Andromeda Strain, because I’m one of those people early to watch any pandemic film last month.

OP: The only video I found is similar to those students in Chicago, and is in keeping with our contained story concept.  I found a Josh Groban video where he’s been singing in the shower—with his clothes on—during the pandemic. 

YW: And something I’d never seen before, he’s a video of how a university in Japan is doing a high tech, low touch version of graduation.

OP: We’re making progress. All fitting under that order, chaos, new order that we talked about in our first conversation. 

YW: If we’re now living in a post-handshake United States, we are heading to a new order.

Scott W. Smith 

 

The continuing fictitious conversation between OLD PRODUCER (OP)—who’s 99-years-old— and YOUNG WRITER (YW).  Their goal in this two-person team is to develop (in a free-wheeling style)  a coronavirus-like story. (Part 1, and Part 2)

OP: So let’s review the bidding. We’re using the coronavirus to inspire our storytelling.

YW: And take our mind off of the havoc it’s doing around the world.

OP: We’re telling a contained story—maybe one location—that is going to take us from order, to chaos, to new order. 

YW: Through the eyes of a high school or college student.

OP: Which way are you leaning?

YW: College. I just think the clash of spring break with social distancing is too good to pass up.

OP: Last night, I decided to jot down a bunch of high school and college movies and TV shows to see what that would reveal.  Surprisingly, I wrote down ten high school films before I wrote one college film. 

YW: Can I see your list?

OP: Yeah, I started a look book and I’ll share my screen with you.

TeenMovies1

YW: Sorority queen/lawyer against the world.

OP: Or Reese Witherspoon against Reese Witherspoon.

YW: Why is American Graffiti in brackets?

OP: Because it’s a hybrid. That gap summer between high school and college, work, or joining the military. 

YW: You know what jumps out on me about that list?

OP: That those films and TV shows span over 60 years. 

YW: That you totally missed the spring break movies— that’s where I’d start. Spring Breakers, Where the Boys Are, and helloRevenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. 

OP: Point taken.

YW: But, it’s interesting  your list is full of comedy.

OP: I kept adding to the list and what do you think I came up with?

YW: More drama?

OP: Apparently the only thing better than comedy—is more comedy. And more high school than college.

teenmovie2

The young writer scans the list of movies and Tv shows.

YW:Wow. What is it you say? Don’t reinvent the wheel. I haven’t seen all of those, but I’ve seen enough that the high school side has more quality and quantity. But together there is still a lot of comedy.

OP: Why do you think that is?

YW: Because your teenage years are so painful.

OP: Richard Pryor said all humor is based on pain. 

YW: So in the great high school vs. college smackdown it appears that high school is the clear winner.

OP: Times of transitions have built-in drama.  

YW: And a world of change happens between the ages of 15 and 18.

OP: High school is also more universal throughout the United States. Only about 35% of adults finish college.

YW: Makes sense then that the college experience resonates with fewer people, so fewer movies.

OP: So I’d say let’s lean toward our hero being a teenager in high school.

YW: Sold. And a senior—because it has to suck to have the last two months of high school not really happen.

OP: What’s worse than that?

Young writer thinks.

YW: That play you’ve been rehearsing for months doesn’t get performed.

OP: What’s worse than that?

YW: They also get the coronavirus—or whatever we use to symbolize to change culture.

OP: Now we’re really making progress. 

YW: Got any more lists to share?

OP: Just one. If our hero is going to be on the screen for the majority of the time—and let’s say it’s a 90 minute feature—what kind of person would hold your attention for that long?  Here’s my mind mapping list. 

DJ

Young writer tries to connect the dots.

YW: You have comedians, and comedians turned actors, YouTubers, DJs, TV hosts, TV shows, podcasters. Again a lot of humor.

OP: Want to add to the list?

YW: Let me think. . . . What about Will Smith, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Taylor, Kanye, Chance the Rapper. Oh, and George Burns.

OP: Great. The hard part is over. All we need to find is am 18-year-old who can act, sing, do improv, play multiple instruments, and is really funny.

YW: How hard can that be? Is this mind mapping of movies and character a typical way of coming up with story ideas?

OP: Creativity is messy. It’s one way of mixing a bunch of things together and seeing what fresh and exciting can emerge. Here’s a video ofJoshua Brand talking about some of the influences on him coming up with the TV show Northern Exposure. (John Falsey was the co-creator.)  Followed by a second video of one of the best DJ performances in modern cinema. Robin Williams unleashed.

Scott W. Smith

The continuing fictitious conversation between OLD PRODUCER (OP)—who’s 99-years-old— and YOUNG WRITER (YW).  Their goal in this two-person team is to develop (in a free-wheeling style)  a coronavirus-like story. (Part 1 here.)

YOUNG WRITER: I made the mistake of starting to watch Tiger King last night.

OLD PRODUCER: How far did you get?

YW: Oh, I took that crazy train all the way to the end of the line.

OP: And what time did the train get in?

YW: Just after four this morning.

OP: So you’re running on little sleep?

YW: Define sleep.

OP: I remember being in my invincible twenties once upon a time.

YW: Had to be a crazy time.

OP: From 1945 on, anything seemed like a party from the previous 15-17 years. 

YW: So this coronavirus is just another bump in the road for you.

OP: In some ways, I think it’s harder on younger people who haven’t been through extreme hardships. My parents were immigrants, so all my family knew—for generations— were hard times until the 1950s. 

YW: And I thought I had it rough because my parents wouldn’t buy me a cell phone until I was 12.

OP: So what did you think about Tiger King from a writing perspective? 

YW: Lots of conflict and plot twists. Fascinating characters —especially Joe Exotic. The stakes were high. And it built to a climax.

OP: And the ending was hinted at in the beginning. In the first episode, we know Joe is in jail, but we don’t know why. Lots of mystery built into it. And it had a good sense of place. The tigers and other animals also provide some good visuals.

YW: And a few hotties sprinkled in.

OP: Notice the filmmakers didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Keep that in mind as we develop a coronavirus-related story. Tiger King is similar but different from stuff we’ve seen before. Even the title Tiger King is a play on the ubiquitous Lion King title. And lions and tigers for entertainment has been around since the first animal circus. And in movies from early stories about Roman gladiators, and Tarzan. 

YW: And unhinged characters always get our attention.

OP: And I don’t know what kind of budget they had, but did you notice they embraced their limitations. About 80% seemed like it was at Joe Exotic’s zoo in Oklahoma, about 10% in Tampa, call it 5% in South Carolina, and 5% misc.—Las Vegas, the prosecutor, jail, etc.). It’s a pretty contained story.

YW: I missed that.

OP: I think we should aim for a contained story. Producer Ted Hope said if he had a film school, he’d have students make a film for $1,000. I think that should be our goal.

YW: Then we’re definitely not making the next Contagion. 

OP: You don’t think we could get Matt Damon to go back to his indie roots?

YW: For $1,000 you couldn’t cover Matt Damon’s dog sitter for a week.

OP: What story could you tell for a $1,000? What story could we actually make this year?

Young writer struggles for an answer.

OP: Embrace your limitations.

YW: Chris Cuomo. Not Chris Cuomo-Chris Cuomo, but a guy talking to the world via his computer.

OP: Good. Part The Martian, part Buried, part Cast Away.  

YW: Again without Matt Damon, Ryan Renyolds, and definitely without Tom Hanks.

OP: How about Tom Hanks’ wife Rita?

YW: Don’t even go there.

OP: Too soon? 

YW: Next.

OP: But you’re okay if it’s a female lead?

YW: Of course.

OP: What is it you find compelling about what Chris Cuomo is doing?

YW: He’s relatively young and strong, and well-known. To see him struggle with the virus is courageous. It’s like he’s putting a face to this virus in a way that all the politicians, medical professions, and media—and all the data— haven’t been able to do.

OP: Why wouldn’t you build a story around a Dr. Falci character?

YW: You could I guess. I just think Chris Cuomo is a more compelling character.

OP:I hope he recovers soon. I think what he’s doing is going to save lives. Remember a couple of weeks ago when the Surgeon General wanted those young influencers to go on social media and talk about the importance of social distancing?

YW: A Kylie Jenner-like version of Chris Cuomo. I like it.

OP: Have you noticed some of these influencers have better production values than the media professionals operating out of their homes?

YW: Because the influencers been perfecting their at-home persona in their spare bedroom studios for years. They know the best camera angles and lighting techniques. I think we’ve found our character.

OP: How old is she or he?  High school or college age?

YW: College-age jumps to my mind because of all those recent spring breakers in Florida.

OP: Traditionally, from an audience perspective with a college student you’ll get the college students and high school students. But college students have moved on and won’t necessarily watch a story about high school students. 

YW: But I’ve been thinking about high school kids because this so sucks for them to have this happen at the end of their senior year. I think of all the games not being played, the proms and skip days that have to be skipped, and graduations that won’t happen.

OP: There’s a lot of emotional stuff to unpack there. Let’s kick that around after our break. And also keep in mind that we don’t have to make this a coronavirus story. Might be best not to—for sensitivity sake. Do what Rod Serling did on The Twilight Zone. Back in the early 1960s, because of sponsors, he couldn’t address racism head-on, so he did it metaphorically—with aliens. A virus impacting the world could stand for many things.

YW: Metaphorically. . . . hmmm.

OP: It keeps your work from being dated. Your homework tonight is to track down and watch the Rod Serling  interview with Mike Wallace.

More to come in Part 3.

Related post:
Writing Buried  (which features one on camera actor, and first planned to be a $5,000 feature).

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

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