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Posts Tagged ‘Aaron Sorkin’

Aaron Sorkin is that rare breed of dramatic writers who has had success with Broadway theatre, Hollywood feature films, and broadcast television. But did you know part of his start was in small southern towns?

After he graduated from Syracuse University in 1983 with a degree in musical theater he moved to New York City, but he got work as an actor not off-Broadway, or off-off Broadway, but way the hell off Broadway.

“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

Sorkin says he had no interest in writing until one day at a “Motel Six or something” somewhere in Georgia when, “I don’t know why, I all of a sudden felt like Sam Shepard. I felt like I ought to be writing something. That’s the first time that thought went into my head, and it just kept nagging at me and I just felt like a writer without ever having written anything.”

His first completed play was Hidden in This Picture, a single-scene one act play involving four characters. A few years later he found breakthrough success.

“His older sister, a naval lawyer, told him about a 1986 incident at the U.S. Marine base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when an informal disciplinary action had gotten out of hand, resulting in the death of a young soldier. Sorkin immediately recognized the possibilities of a courtroom drama based on the event. In November, 1989, his play, ‘A Few Good Men,’ about two naval lawyers defending two Marines accused of murdering a fellow corpsman, began a 14-month run on Broadway.”
Patrick Pacheco
1992 Los Angeles Times article 

That led to Sorkin writing the film version of A Few Good Men (1992) with a star cast that included Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise, and Demi Moore. He would go on to win an Oscar award for writing The Social Network, and multiple Emmys for his work on The West Wing.

Now to come full circle, earlier this year NBC announced plans to stage a live version of A Few Good Men in early 2017.

I’m not saying all that wouldn’t have happened if Sorkin career path didn’t take to Jasper, Alabama and who knows where Georgia, but magical things can happen on the road—even in a Motel Six.

Dream big, start small.

P.S. Jasper, Alabama is also where stage and film actress Tallulah Bankhead spent some of her childhood, and where SciFy channels docuseries Town of the Living Dead was shot.

Related posts:
(Because I love writing about a sense of place, here’s some love I’ve written over the years centered around Alabama and Georgia.)

Alabama:
Tuscumbia to Hollywood
Muscle Shoals Music & Movie
Shooting a Feature Film in 4 Days
Postcard #82 (Selma)
Postcard #46 (Huntsville)
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisted’
Bama, Bobby & The U
Screenwriting from Huntsville, AL
Martin Luther King Jr. & Screenwriting 

Georgia:
25 Links Related to Blacks & Filmmaking
Postcard #43 (Savannah)
Postcard #35 (Villa Rica)
‘Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus’
Writing Quote #40 (Harry Crews)
Writing from Rural Georgia…to Dreamworks
Screenwriting, Baseball & Underdogs
Truett Cathy–Bird by Bird
Screenwriting Quote #70 (James Dickey)
Writing Quote #39 (Writing in Paris)
Shrimp, Giants & Tyler Perry
‘Super-Serving Your Niche’

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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The extended title of this post could be called, Dramatic writers don’t all agree on various techniques, but when Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet and Paddy Chayefsky all basically agree on the same approach it’s wise to follow their lead—but I thought that was a little too wordy.

“Rather than tell the audience who the character is, I like to show the audience what a character wants. It all boils down to intentions and obstacles.  Somebody wants something; something is standing in their way of getting it. They want the girl, they want the money, they want to get to Philadelphia — it doesn’t matter, but they have to want it bad. If they need it, that’s even better. Something formidable is in standing in their way, and the tactics that character uses to overcome the obstacle is going to define who the character is. It’s like having a Christmas tree and then hanging ornaments on it…I worship at the temple of intention and obstacle. That’s the drive shaft of the car.”
Producer/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, West Wing)
The Aspen Institute interview with David Brooks

And if Sorkin, Mamet, and Chayefsky don’t sway you how about a Pixar example from the same interview?

“If you look at the characters in Toy Story, beginning with Woody on down, they had one big desire which was to be there for Andy. To fulfill their essence of a toy, which is to make him happy. A ton of obstacles were thrown at them. And their characters were defined by how they overcame them.”
Aaron Sorkin

P.S. Intentions and obstacles leads to Conflict-Conflict-Conflict and helps you follow Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule: Don’t be boring. And Intentions, obstacles, and conflict are all cousins of The Major or Central Dramatic Question.

Related posts:
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO (?)
Screenwriting Quote #94 (David Mamet)1. Who wants what from whom? 2. What happens of they don’t get it? 3. Why now?”
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6) “Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?” Paddy Chayefsky
‘There is only one plot’—A person, or group or an entity (an animal, or an alien, or whatever) wants something…” David Morrell
Character Introductions (Tip #71)
Show Don’t Tell
Show Don’t Tell (Part 2)
Writing the Pixar Way 

Scott W. Smith

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“Baseball players say they don’t have to look to see if they hit a home run, they can feel it. So I wish for you a moment—a moment soon—when you really put the bat on the ball, when you really get a hold of one and drive it into the upper deck, when you feel it.”
Producer/screenwriter Aaron Sorkin
Syracuse University’s 2012 commencement speech 

Just today I learned that I share not only a birthday month with Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), but we were born the same year.  That’s about where the similarities end. (Well, he co-wrote Moneyball and I’ve seen that movie a bunch of times so we have that in common, too.)

One of the themes of Moneyball is how one can have incredible baseball talent in high school—even be a first round pick—and still not have an appreciable career in the major leagues. While I imagine the attrition rate is pretty high of writers, directors, and actors who hit the ground running with Sorkin after he graduated from Syracuse University in 1983, he’s been able to find tremendous and lasting success in both film and television.

In the great production pyramid today, Sorkin is tucked away somewhere in the little corner at the top. So when MasterClass announced last week it was soon releasing Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting, a 5 hour plus video workshop, I was pretty excited about the news.

I haven’t seen the MasterClass videos, but can’t imagine it not being worth the time and money ($90.) to gather a few takeaways on your way to becoming a better writer. Here’s a list of Aaron Sorkin-centered posts I’ve written over the years that give you a glimpse into what he could touch on:

Aaron Sorkin’s Survival Jobs
Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Sorkin’s Emotional Drive
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Movie Cloning (Aaron Sorkin)
Screenwriting Quote #43 (Aaron Sorkin)
Writing ‘The Social Network’ (Part 1)
Writing ‘The Social Network’ (Part 2)
Writing ‘A Few Good Men’
‘Moneyball’ & Coach Ferrell 

And since those Sorkin teaching videos won’t be released until later this month, here’s a story from his graduation speech where he talks about a lesson he learned while a student:

“As a freshman drama student, I had a play analysis class—it was part of my requirement.  The professor was Gerardine Clark. The play analysis class met for 90 minutes twice a week.  We read two plays a week and we took a 20-question true or false quiz at the beginning of the session that tested little more than whether or not we’d read the play.  The problem was that the class was at 8:30 in the morning, it met all the way down on East Genesee, I lived all the way up at Brewster/Boland, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but from time to time the city of Syracuse experiences inclement weather.  All this going to class and reading and walking through snow, wind chill that’s apparently powered by jet engines, was having a negative effect on my social life in general and my sleeping in particular.  At one point, being quizzed on Death of a Salesman, a play I had not read, I gave an answer that indicated that I wasn’t aware that at the end of the play the salesman dies.  And I failed the class.  I had to repeat it my sophomore year; it was depressing, frustrating and deeply embarrassing.    And it was without a doubt the single most significant event that occurred in my evolution as a writer.  I showed up my sophomore year and I went to class, and I paid attention, and we read plays and I paid attention, and we discussed structure and tempo and intention and obstacle, possible improbabilities, improbable impossibilities, and I paid attention, and by God when I got my grades at the end of the year, I’d turned that F into a D.  I’m joking: it was pass/fail.”
Aaron Sorkin

And just to make that lesson a It’s a Wonderful Life moment, years later Sorkin was asked by Arthur Miller if he could fill in as a guest lecturer at NYU where the subject was Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. (Cue the Walk of Life music.)

Related posts:
Can Screenwriting Be Taught?
Screenwriting Quote #175 (Arthur Miller) 
Murray, Miller & Mass Appeal (Tip #78)
Volcanic Emotions & Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller on Writing
What Would Miller Do?
The Best Film School 

Related Professor posts:
Professor Stephen King
Professor Jerry Lewis (The Total Filmmaker)
Professor/Pirate Steven Soderbergh

P.S. On a micro doc I made a couple of years ago, I started off a quote from Moneyball:

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“I was 21, maybe I was 22 [when I began writing].  It was shortly after I graduated from college, moved to New York, got a number of survival jobs. I bartended in Broadway theaters, I dressed up as a moose and handed out leaflets. I drove a limousine, I delivered singing telegrams. I did all the kinds of things you’re going to do, because it’s unlikely that you’re going to graduate and instantly be hired to do what you dream about doing. And I would only urge you — and I know this is a lot easier said than done — but I would only urge you to get on the bottom rung of a ladder you want to climb, and not the middle of a ladder you don’t care about.

“Or even the second rung of a ladder you don’t care about. Get on the bottom of a ladder you want to climb, and that really hard work you’re doing for no money is not going to seem quite so hard. You’re going to have a hard time paying your bills, it’s going to be a hard life, everything is going to be hard, but there’s going to be something fun about it. Your soul is going to feel good. You’re going to like yourself. And work hard and you’ll get to the second rung, the third, the fourth, and fifth.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)
The Hollywood Reporter interview with Stephen Galloway

 

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“Follow your curiosity. Stories are sometimes found in the most unlikely places.”
Producer Laura MacDonald (Gladiator)
(That’s the drum that I’ve been beating on this blog since 2008.)

Yesterday the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences dropped the above video giving advice to screenwriters. Here are a few of my favorite insights from that video:

“Screenwriting is no different than playing the violin, you have practice. Read the screenplays of your favorite movies, watch the movie with the screenplay on your lap—just try to sort of reverse engineer it.”
Aaron Sorkin

“I would say write something that’s inexpensive to produce. Don’t write like a 200 million dollar movie and then wonder why no one wants to take a shot and make it.”
Seth Rogan

“Please don’t describe your female characters as ‘broken but beautiful.’ Please. Please. I’ve read it so many times.”
Brie Larson 

“Don’t over-describe, let the action and the dialogue do the work.” 
Lenny Abrahamson

“When I can see that someone is following a system, or some formula that they’ve been taught, I completely lose interest. I prefer things that break the rules somehow.”
Michael Shannon

Related posts:

Aiming for Small Scale Success First “More and more people are getting their foot in the door by doing really good work on a small scale.”—Jon Favreau
Little Victories, Big Lights
Descriptive Writing (Frank Darabont)
‘Learning from the very best’
Descriptive Writing (Characters)
‘Broken Wings & Silver Linings’
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic  “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.” Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption)
How to Write a Screenplay in One Day

Scott W. Smith

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A nice segue from my recent Rod Serling posts (and even my golf/movie related posts from a couple of weeks ago) is the following quote by Oscar-winner screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. Serling was born in Syracuse, New York and Sorkin went to Syracuse University.

“I have a lot of experience with failure, and I hate it. It’s going to happen again, but it’s like electroshock therapy. So combined with the pressure that you put on yourself, that’s pretty much the jet fuel for writing. You know when you’re not [writing well], when you’re slogging through it and it’s all coming like molasses, you know something’s wrong. But when you’re writing well, there’s nothing like it. It’s like the golfer who hacks his way around a golf course all day long, but then for some reason, you don’t know why, just hits a beautiful shot. That’s the reason they keep coming back to the golf course.”
Aaron Sorkin (West Wing creator)
Emmys Roundtable—The Hollywood Reporter 

Bonus failure quote from the same article:

“When I’m being really honest with myself, the only thing I ever learn from is failure. Because Breaking Bad is the rare success I’ve had in my career.”
Vince Gilligan

Related posts:

J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure
Commitment in the Face of Failure
Spectacular Failures
Rod Serling on Rejection
Winning. Losing and Little Miss Sunshine “From my perspective, the difference between success and failure was razor-thin…”—Oscar-winning Screenwriter Michael Arndt
Orson Welles at USC in 1981 (Part 3) “Anybody who goes into film has to be a little crazy. And has to be ready for every kind of disappointment and defeat.”—Welles

Scott W. Smith

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“I think what I’m trying to say [in Network] is, ‘How do you preserve yourself in a world where life really doesn’t mean much anymore?’ That’s what I was trying to say. The trick is, of course, to say it so that it’s a good movie.”
Paddy Chayefsky
Interview with Dinah Shore

 “It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to be handed the same award that was given to Paddy Chayefsky 35 years ago for another movie with ‘network’ in the title.”
Aaron Sorkin
Oscar acceptance speech for writing The Social Network

In 1977 Paddy Chayefsky won an Academy Award for his Network screenplay. Over the weekend I saw a link to a NY Times piece call The Notes Behind ‘Network.’ Here are a few highlights that give a glmpse into the writing process of Chayefsky:

NetworkOutline

ACT II of the Network Stogy
The general framework of Act II is to show how the
network becomes successful and powerful. Obviously, one
crazy anchor man isn't enough to make a network success-
ful. A networkfpower comes from the number of affiliates
it has. Affiliates join a network essentially because
their programs are most in demand by the local areas
serviced by the affiliates. So the next step in the
solvency and success of the network is the success of
programming, built on the,lead--in success of the angry
7:00 news program: - What missing here is the satirical
clarity of how one network achieves successful program-
ming. "he only joke we have going for us is the idea of
ANGER - The American people are angry and want; angry shows --
They donlt want jolly, happy family type shows like 
Witness News; they want angry shows -- So they base their
propgramming on ANGER -- At the moment, the successful
sitcom shows are those that make political comments, mild,
bland,liberal political comments - on racism, Watergate,
political corruption, reactionary neighbors, etc. - UBC
decides to go one step better and make genuinely angry
ainx sit--coms, so that they become sit--tragedies -- The
American people seem to be hungering for happier days
like the Depression, note The Waltons -- frogramming sets
up depression shows with happy, starving families -
No matter how much programming satire we use, we still 
afetbasing the success of their programming on unclear
ines. are assuming UBC programming will now
telling business. You're in the
boredom-killing business. You kill
time for two hundred million Americans
who don't know what to do with themselves.
You give them football games and songs
and dances and soap operas and talk shows
Eor people who forgot how to talk to
each other. You 
tell them
news because they've forgotten how to read -
INTERCUT: Reactions of a glacial hostility settling over
the vast room - There is a noticeable movement of the PRESS
and TV Camera erews slowly edging down the aisles toward the
rostrum -
BACK TO: Eddie at the rostrum. FLASHES from press photographers
occasionally fire, punctuating Eddie's speech -
EDDIE
-Why? Because you're not really in
the entertainment business. You're in
the merchandising business. Your job
is to assemble the largest audience of
consumers. You are, in short, shills
for your sponsors. And television, d1e
fountain of truth,
Q, is, in fact, being run, for the
benefit of a few giant corporations -

Related Posts:

Screenwriting Quote #134 (Paddy Chayefsky)
Paddy Chayefsky Interview
“Television used to suck”—Frank Darabont
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6) “Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?”—Chayefsky
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 5) The best thing that can happen is for the theme to be nice and clear from the beginning.”— Chayefsky

H/T Scott Keiner for the NY Times link (Via the Two Adverbs screenwriting group on Facebook.)

Scott W. Smith

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