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Posts Tagged ‘AFI’

“The greatest obstacles to making films was getting access to equipment. And so my generation went to film school.”
Spike Lee on going to film school in the late ’70s & early ’80s
American Black Film Festival

Mr. Robot  creator/writer/director Sam Esmail did his undergraduate film school work at NYU (with a couple of semesters in a Dartmouth College writing program) and then did his master’s in directing at AFI in Los Angeles. Recently before a live WGA audience, Esmail was asked by screenwriter John August if he thought his film school experience and studies were worth it to get where he is today.

“Are there any faculty members here? [Laughter from audience.]  Film school’s expensive. It’s very expensive. In fact, I think the tuition at AFI is almost double what I paid at the time. It was a lot back then. And honestly, it wasn’t until after the first season of Mr. Robot that I was able to pay it all back. There was a point where I was like, ‘I’m either going to hit it big or die in debt.’ I didn’t really see a middle option there. I don’t know. The answer is, I don’t know.”
—Sam Esmail
Scriptnotes, Episode 449

Do listen to the whole interview with August to get the full context of Esmail’s comments.  But that pull quote is an excellent follow-up answer to the recent post ‘Should I Go to Film School?’ A Successful Writer/Producer Gives a Solid Answer for Students Today where Shonda Rhimes weighs in on going to film school verses taking an entry level level job in the business.

And like Rhimes in that post, Esmail’s NYU, Dartmouth, AFI education also carries a total sticker price today of around $500,000. No extra zeros added.  Five hundred thousand dollars. Of course, there are scholarships, grants, and schools with endowments, and less expensive film schools that can keep down the actual costs. But it’s wise to know how much you’ll actually owe when you graduate.

Even a $50,000 student loan can haunt you for decades, especially if you start working as a production assistant in Los Angeles. (Where the cost of living is high even if you have no student loans.) Check out Scriptnotes podcast episode 422 where August and Craig Mazin discuss the realities of low pay for assistants in Hollywood.

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to find articles online where people talk about the reality of dying in debt due to student loans.  In the past ten years, student loan availability and compounded interest have changed the game, mixed with young people (and their parents) not fully comprehending the ripple effect of massive student loans. That if you’re just making minimum payments each month, your loan amount can actually be growing.

And adding a monthly student loan in the amount somewhere between a new car payment and a house payment to your budget each month is an uphill climb for many. That includes doctors and lawyers—not just film school grads.

Esmail did hit it big. I’m not sure what percentage of 40,000+  film school grads hit it big, but it’s not a high percentage . (I once heard less than 1% of film school grads ever make a feature, which is different than hitting it big with a sustainable career. If you have more empirical data, send it my way.)

Would Esmail have found success without going to film school? Like with Rhimes, we’ll never know. He did say that contacts he had at AFI opened doors to agents and managers right out of the gate. Plus he picked up a few skills that allowed him to work as an assistant editor on a realty TV show.

At night after his day job he wrote scripts that got him meetings (via AFI contacts) with studios but no assignments or sales. He had a couple of scripts land on the Blacklist (starting with Sequels, Remakes & Adaptations in 2008) that brought sales, but didn’t get produced. Finally, he decided to write a contained story and eventually cobbled together the funds and a crew to direct the film —with help again from his AFI contacts. And in film school you make short films (ideally a lot), make mistakes, and learn while working with others.. Esmail didn’t go into directing his first feature film unprepared.

Comet was released in 2014, ten years after Esmail finished his MFA from AFI. Mr. Robot premiered the following year. Since he was born in 1977, that puts him around age 37 or 38 when he hit it big. So factor that trajectory into your film school expectations.

The main thing that Esmail encourages others to do (regardless if you went to film school or not) is as soon as you finish writing your great script, start writing the next one. (That worked for Oscar winner Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)—How To Be. a Successful Screenwriter.)

And keep in mind that while USC, AFI, and NYU have extensive lists of graduates in the industry, many went there back in the day—when the expense was more easily managed. Or had parents or other means to defray the costs. (One film school grad with no debt, and working in the industry in LA, told me that if his parents didn’t cover his car payment and insurance and help with rent he wouldn’t be able to make it there.)

If you’re set on film school, keep in mind there are less expensive options out there. And because high-quality equipment in relatively inexpensive, you can take the Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place) path and make your own films even before you go to college. And when they did go to college at the University of Iowa, they majored in communications. It never hurts to have a college degree if you’re looking for a job outside the Hollywood system.

P.S. The one guy who hit it big that I went to film school with is David Nutter. But if I recall correctly, he wasn’t even a film major. He was majoring in music with the goal of becoming the next Barry Manilow ( Manilow was a hit maker through the ’70s and has sold 75 million records). But Nutter started taking film classes, and made some super student films that opened the door to directing Cease Fire with Don Johnson soon after graduating from college. A couple of decades later he became a multiple-Primetime Emmy winning director for his work on Game of Thrones. Read the post The Perfect Ending for the upside of film school . (But, again, film school in the ’80s was a different game financially than it is today.)

Homework: Watch your favorite film 50 times and study what makes it work. How many scenes are there? How long are the scenes? How many camera set ups are in each scene? How many scenes feature just two actors talking? Watch it with the sound off. Listen to only the audio. What’s the major dramatic question? Where’s the conflict in each scene? How does each scene move the story forward? What changes from one scene to the next? How many scenes feature the protagonist/hero? How many locations did they use? Etc., etc. You can learn a lot from one film that costs you less than $20. (Indie films Winter’s Bone and Pieces of April are personal favorites of mine to re-watch since you have the added benefit of studying how they pulled of compelling movies on a limited budget. Lesson 1: Solid casting and a good script are more important than a big crew and expensive equipment.)

Resources (While film school can be expensive, here are some great free resources.):
Scriptnotes 
Go Into the Story
Indie Film Hustle
The Rewatchables (My current favorite podcast)
YouTube tutorials on everything from lighting to editing to film history. Start with the Every Frame a Painting channel.

Related post:
Keeping Solvent and Sane
Is Film School Worth It?
What’s It Like to Be a Struggling Writer in L.A.?
Bob DeRosa’s ‘Shortcuts’
The $330,000 Film School Debt

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

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“In all this darkness, is there anybody who can make out the truth?”
The Twilight Zone/ episode I Am the Night —Color Me Black (1964)  

Writer/director Sean Baker spoke at Rollins College yesterday and asked the question, “Can cinema change the world?” He talked about the filmmakers and their films that have inspired him over the years.

As with his own films (The Florida Project, Tangerine), Baker is drawn to films that are “passports to the underrepresented,” and ones that shine a light on a specific subject or problem, and have potential to have a positive impact on society.

Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake)

Nicholas Meyer (The American TV movie The Day After Tomorrow, with and a nod to the BBC TV movie Threads—both movies sparked a debate about the fallout of a nuclear holocaust.)

Robert Kenner (Food, Inc)

Those films—as well as An Inconvenient Truth, JFK, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel— give you some insights on why he would be interested in doing a film about the hidden homeless or about an illegal Chinese immigrant.

Starting with an issue or a theme can be a dubious beginning as it can be seen as didactic and stepping into the murky waters of propaganda. Baker acknowledged that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he is committed to asking the hard questions.  He’s working toward change knowing that change takes time. Sometimes years or even a generation.

As a side note, Rod Serling began with a theme on The Twilight Zone episodes yet eventually found a universal audience with timeless truths.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a storyline or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
Rod Serling letter to Dave Pitt

Read Serling’s 1968 Moorpark College speech and you’ll see where he stood ideologically. But in the early ’60s he couldn’t overtly write about racism and other social concerns, so he used metaphors.  He could address xenophobia by writing about space aliens, as he did on The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.  

“[Rod Serling’s] optimism about the human condition led to stories that made one feel good about the race and its chances for emotional triumph. That, well told, will always sell.”
Producer Buck Houghton (The Twilight Zone)
What a Producer Does 

I wrote many positive posts on this blog about The Florida Project, but one thing it wasn’t was a film that gave us hope for an emotional triumph. I think that is why it had a limited audience. Audiences like to see a character change for the better, even if it’s just one tiny step forward. Halley (Bria Vinaite’s character) took (at least) two giant steps backward and devolved (taking her daughter with her) making it difficult for some to even finish watching the film.

Baker’s a bold filmmaker. It takes him three years to make a film so he made the film he wanted to make.  And maybe the change—the emotional triumph that he wanted to see was not one that happened on the screen, but one that happened to those that watched the film. Personally, no film resonated and haunted me more in 2017 than The Florida Project. 

Baker said last night that “the true success of The Florida Project” was that Rollins College has promised a full four-year scholarship to Christopher Rivera, the child actor who plays Scooty in the film. Rivera was living in a hotel in Kissimmee, Florida when he was cast to be in the film alongside Brooklynn Prince. (According to the Orlando Sentinel, with room and board at Rollins that offer is “roughly $250,000 at current prices.”)

As Baker pointed out, change can be on a micro level. One life changed because The Florida Project co-writer Chris Bergoch learned via news outlets about the hidden homeless living in hotels in the shadow of Disney World.

P.S. I know one of the conventions of indie filmmakers is unconventionality. Offbeat (even unlikeable) main characters, mini or non-plot stories, and downbeat endings. But if you want to nudge the world a little—to borrow Tom Stoppard’s phrase once again—please revisit On the Waterfront. It’s Hollywood filmmaking at its finest. (Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Budd Schulberg, Eva Marie Saint, Leonard Berstein) And it’s based on articles by Malcolm Johnson (see the book On the Waterfront) based on corruption that was common on the New York Harbor.

It’s a film that’s very specific to New York City/Hoboken, New Jersey in the ’40s & ’50s, and yet a timeless story that’s played out in one form or another throughout the world, throughout history.  Considered a great American film—by some—and an anti-American film by others. Nothing like a controversy to keep the conversation going. It’s number eight on AFI’s 100 Films…100 Years list, and one of my favorites that I return to again and again.

On the Waterfront won eight Acadamy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. Here’s the screenplay. The film is available on Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection.

Not all writers agree on the role they have in plying their trade. Playwright/screenwriter David Mamet writes in On Film Directing, “People have tried for centuries to use drama to change people’s lives, to influence, to comment, to express themselves. It doesn’t work. It might be nice if it worked for those things, but it doesn’t. The only thing the dramatic form is good for is telling a story.”

On the other hand, when Charles Dickens wanted to address child labor laws and other poor social conditions in London, he didn’t write a pamphlet encouraging reforms—he wrote Oliver Twist, Hard Times, and A Christmas Carol.

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back
Bruce Springsteen/My Hometown

Musician Bruce Springsteen walks that line of entertaining large crowds, yet at the same time writing and recording songs with a social consciousness. Youngstown is one of my favorite Springsteen songs because it connects me to a grandfather I never met who spent over 30 years working at Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel mill.

I’ll write more about Springsteen and his Broadway special later, but one of the reasons his songs are both gritty and hopeful is he mixes blues with gospel music over and over again in his songs.

“If you look at all my songs – ‘Badlands,’ ‘Promised Land’ – it’s the way I sing ‘Badlands;’ it’s the verse of ‘Promised Land;’ it’s the chorus of ‘Born in the USA.’ The spiritual comes out in the choruses, which I got from gospel music in the church, and then the blues and what the song is — the details of what the song is moving to transcend are almost always contained in the verses.”
Bruce Springsteen
NPR interview with Terry Gross

Related posts:

The Florida Project Revisited 

The Florida Project

The Journalistic and Cinematic Roots of The Florid Project

Sean Baker Aiming for Someplace Different…and Striking Gold

The Rusty Gears of Three Acts and Blurring the Lines of Traditional Screenplay Structure with The Florida Project

The Florida Project and Shining a Light

The Eye Candy of The Florida Project

Thanksgiving with The Florida Project and Pieces of April

The Florida Project—Margaritaville or Bust

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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This is part two (of what I think will be four parts) of an interview with screenwriter Rick Ramage (Stigmata). In part one we covered how he was born in Fargo, North Dakota, raised in Denver, Colorado, where in his mid-twenties he was selling tractors when he wrote his first screenplay. That led him to getting accepted at the American Film Institute  in L.A. where he got a formal education writing and making short films.

Scott W. Smith: I read that when you were at AFI you had the  opportunity to work with and up an coming young actor named Tobey Maguire.

Rick Ramage: Yeah, that was an unbelievable day. He wasn’t a star then; I think he was 12 or 13 years old. He walked in an just nailed that audition. Tobey and I became fast friends. We’ve lost touch now, but we hung out for quite a while after that. He was just a wonderful kid. Bright and cocky, he had all the right stuff. He was a wonderful actor. He just had it. I always tell that story when I’m at a party, “Oh, I know Spiderman. He was in one of my movies.” “Really, which one?”, “Ah…it was a student film.” But it’s still fun.

SWS: What did you do after your formal film education at AFI?

RR: After film school I worked at Omega Cinema Props for almost a year while I continued to write, and I got lucky and I optioned a script. I actually optioned my script right before I got out of film school.

SWS I think I read where that first script optioned for $5,000.

RR: Yep, Five thousand bucks, but it felt like a million though. It never got made. But I had a serious sale after that and was busy. I started to work on the project Shakespeare’s Sister which turned into The Proposition [1998] which was the first movie that I had written get made. Ted Field and Diane Nabatoff who were at Interscope bought that script. I never looked back after that.

the-proposition-863469l

SWS: So you had success right out of the gate.

RR: This is the truth— but I almost hesitate to tell it because I had such a dream experience—I sold Shakespeare’s Sister and literally in the next week or ten days the first director I ever met was Steven Spielberg and the second director I ever met was Sydney Pollack. Both on the same day and both gave me a job so I was thrust into a level for which I was in no way prepared. Those guys are massive storytellers and massive directors, but they read Shakespeare’s Sister and were intrigued enough to give me a shot. So here I went from having $17 to having Shakespeare’s Sister sell. As you know, you get half up front and half upon production, so I had a couple hundred thousand there. So I went to work with both of those directors. It was phenomenal. I thought “great, this is how it works”. Everybody wants that to happen. And I stayed in the studio system for the next 15 years. I would do re-writes. I’d sell a spec—I’ve sold 10 or 11 spec scripts. I was pretty spoiled.

[Note: Ramage is taking all the experienced he’s gather over the years and putting them together in The Screenplay Show.]

SWS: Stigmata, of which you are co-credited as writer with Tom Lazarus, is one of your highest profile projects. How did you get on that project?

RR: I was asked to do a rewrite on Stigmata by Frank Mancuso and it was shortly after The Proposition was made. I didn’t even know what stigmata was. I got a call from MGM and they asked if I’d look at it. I love projects where I don’t necessarily know the answer that I’m looking for. I have a theory that if I can get you to identify in the first few pages and ask, “What would I do here?”, I got ya.

SWS. I thought the scene in Stigmata where Patricia Arquette gets a stigmata raised a major dramatic question and it made me think “What’s going to happen to her?” and carried that through to the climax when that was resolved.

RR: I tend to look for God a lot through character and scripts. I love that because there is no answer, right? It’s what you arrive at dramatically that counts. As long as you approach anything with reverence, I think people will respect it.

I had a director ask me once, “What’s the one thing you come out of the movie theater with?” and I’m like, “Duh, I don’t know.” He goes, “An opinion. It’s the one thing that everybody has when they leave a movie.” And he said, “The gift is they’re discussing your movie or engaging about it on the way home.” Because you’ve accomplished something. It’s not Spam in a can. You got people talking about it. I thought that was great advice.

SWS: Stigmata and Se7en were thrillers with religious overtones—both made in the 90s—do you think those films get made today given that the middle class of filmmaking has all but disappeared?

RR: I’m glad you put it that way, middle class. Where did the middle class go? I don’t know. It disappeared shortly after the Writers Guild strike. I think a story like Stigmata would definitely more so than a story like The Proposition. As a a society we’ve moved so far past what might have been considered salacious back in the 30s to now is commonplace.

Stigmata would. It touches on the spiritual aspect. The horrific elements of Stigmata came out of a real place. The Father named Padre Pio would be attacked in his cell, another word for his room in Italy every month or two (something) would go in there and throw him around. That’s when it got interesting to me, because it’s the yin and yang, good and evil at work.

Right after the movie came out—and it was number one that week—I did a radio interview out of New York and the guy said, “I really liked your movie and we’re about to go on the air.” And I said “Good”, because at least he liked the movie. And he came back after the commercial break and said, “we’re with Rick Ramage screenwriter of the number one movie Stigmata, Rick what do you have against Catholics?” I felt my stomach sink into my knees. I said “I don’t have anything against Catholics; I’m married to one. Why?” He said, “Well, you know, in The Proposition the priest sleeps with the woman, and in Stigmata your priest is a bad guy.” I go, “Well, my priest in The Proposition finds God because there is an old saying that ‘Priests are in search of God, and sinner know him.’ And for Stigmata the priest is a bad guy, but so is the good guy. It’s called a power struggle. Certainly the church is a wonderful place for a power struggle.” He said, “That makes sense”, but you get the point, you never know how something is going to be interpreted.  

I was in awe of what Patrica Arquette did with the role. One of the gifts of a screenwriter is you write it down and then you watch somebody do it better than you ever hear it in your head. That’s a gift. She made it better, and that’s one of the fun parts of getting something made. When I watched her performance, she didn’t blink she went for it. Gabriel Byrne went to seminary so he’d know how a priest would think and act. So it was a great experience.

In Part 3 we’ll look at how Rick transitioned to television and other projects.

Related posts:
Screenwriter Rick Ramage Q&A (Part 1)
Screenwriter Rick Ramage Q&A (Part 3)

Scott W. Smith

 

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Screenwriter Rick Ramage (Stigmata) has had a career which includes some interesting peaks; he had his first script optioned while he was still a student at AFI, developed projects with Steven Spielberg and Sydney Pollack, had a number one hit movie the week it opened, has sold many spec scripts—and been based in Denver, Colorado for most of his career. Now he’s launching The Screenplay Show to pass on what he’s learned over the years to new and/or unproduced writers. Here’s a Q&A I did with Ramage just two weeks ago that I hope you find helpful in your own journey.

Scott W. Smith: I read you were born in Fargo, North Dakota, what road did you take to get to Hollywood, California?

Rick Ramage: I moved to Denver when I was in fifth grade and my parents split up almost right away. My mom married a guy who owned a tractor dealership. I worked for him my entire adolescents through high school and I went to university for a year, but I was making way too much selling tractors and college didn’t interest me. I thought, “What’s the point? I’m going to go into the family business anyway.” I thought that was going to be my life. But when I quit school I wanted to be read and well-spoken so what I did is promise myself that I’d read 100 of the classic books. I was about 15 novels into that promise when I realized I wasn’t just reading stories but I was following the ways different writers were presenting their tales and working the elements. 

SWS: Did you buy the leather bound The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written you used to see advertised in magazines?

RR:No, I was haunting this place called the Tattered Cover. I was a bookstore stalker. I would just roam up and down the aisles and if I recognized it as a classic, I’d shift my weight in front of it, and then I’d buy three or four books I found. I didn’t expect anything except to get an informal education. All my friends pretty much went away to college. By the time they got back I was already daydreaming about being a writer. 

SWS: My wife is from Denver so I’m familiar with a the Tattered Cover Book Store that once had many more locations in the pre-Internet days than they do now. Which one did you frequent?

RR: The Tattered Cover in Cherry Creek was the one I was going to. It was a department store for books, a really fun place. They had a great atmosphere. And they had a great attitude about book lovers. I would hang out there for hours. 

SWS: That was a cool vibe.

RR: Totally. I would stop by on my lunches, or on the way home. It was a staple for me. It really gave me—and this will sound corny— a longing to be a part of that world. After daydreaming about being a writer I decided, “I’m going to write a book.” And I thought for sure it was going to be the great American classic. And for the next seven or eight months I worked on it at night when I got home. It was more of a novella, and I sent it to someone I trusted. And the story kind of ends with him saying it wasn’t a very good novel and I was crushed. I felt like I’d been hit with a gut punch. But he was kind enough to say, “But you’re a really good writer. You’re really visual, you should consider writing screenplays.” I had never seen a screenplay presented; I’d never read one. So I went to the Tattered Cover and bought Brian’s Song.

SWS: The first movie I ever cried watching. In fact, I think for a lot of men that’s the first movie they ever cried watching.

RR: I know! Let’s not talk about it or I might start crying again. But the formatting appealed to me. And so I turned my bad book into a bad screenplay, but I was hooked. I could see a definite structure into how screenplays were written. It appealed to me. 

SWS. What did you learn from those novels you were reading? And how did it inform your screenwriting?

RR:. I think the thing I began to identify quickly when I picked up a novel was a distinctive voice. An author with a very distinct delivery and style would really pull me in quickly. That really stuck with me and I worked very hard at developing the correct voice for one of stories. By that I mean the tonal quality of it. Great writers have this tonal quality to their writing that’s very distinctive. You can tell Dickens from Flaubert. I think that was very conscious with me. 

I’ll never forget The Scarlet Letter was one of my favorite books because I think it has one of the greatest antagonists ever written. Because Chillingworth didn’t just want to kill Dimmesdale, that was too easy, he wanted to ruin his soul. And I thought, “That’s a bad guy,” you know? Later when I told my agent I wanted to be known as a guy who could adapt books, I think it helped get me a lot of jobs. They knew I wasn’t going down to Blockbuster to get my next idea. 

SWS: When you were reading all those great novels and started writing your first screenplay you would have been in your mid-twenties, were you still working in the tractor business all that time?

RR: You bet. Full time. 

SWS: Well, since my blog is called Screenwriting from Iowa, I have to ask—what kind of tractors did you sell?

RR: I love it. We sold Allis-Chalmers, Owatonna, and Kubota. I was in Denver and my territory was the Front Range. I was selling to a lot of industrial places, rail yards and construction companies. My specialty was Kubotas, and forklifts and backhoes and stuff like that. 

SWS:. Screenwriter Dale Launer (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) told me he sold stereos in LA before he sold a screenplay, and I’ve pointed out before the great job former insurance salesman, Pete Jones, did on selling his screenplay on the first Project Greenlight. Do you think being a salesman helped you to become a screenwriter?

RR: It did teach me to sell. How to conduct myself in a room when there is a buyer in front of you. I never lost sight of that. I never went in and reduced myself to just explaining to a producer what my dream was. I knew I was in there to sell a product called a script. 

SWS. Sales is a transferable skill.

RR: I really think so. I wasn’t Rico Sauvé. My very first pitch I pretty much got thrown out of Hutch Parker‘s office because I forgot the title of the script. I’m not kidding. I went in there with two producers. They said, “You sure you don’t want to pitch it to us?” I’m like, “No, I’m fine, I’ll be good.” I walked into Hutch’s office at Orion at the time. He said, “Hi Rick, how are you?” You could tell he was busy. We sat down and he said “Go.” And it was like someone fired a gun at my temple. There was no preamble. This was no foreplay. He was very cordial, but “go.” And the producers where like “The Masterpiece.” They actually reminded me of the title and I just looked at them and I started to laugh, and I said I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to do this. And Hutch clapped his hands and said thanks for coming in and out the door I went. And I didn’t pitch again for like three years. It rattled my cage. 

SWS: Let’s back up a few steps. There must have been a step between being a tractor salesman in Denver and pitching a project to a Hollywood executive.

RR: I decided, “If I’m really going to do this, I’m going to go to film school.” I didn’t have a degree and here I was applying to AFI, which is a master program. All of my friends who had degrees at this time said I was chasing rainbows—“Don’t waste your registration fee.” I wrote David Shaw at the AFI a letter and said if it’s about a pedigree I get it, I don’t have a degree. But if it’s about the writing, here’s a sample of my work. And I sent him 5-6 pages of a script I was working on. And sure enough I got a letter that I’d been accepted. And I thought, “there you go, I’m going to be a screenwriter.” So I sold my house, I had a little boy at the time, and talked my wife into going out there. We had two cars and I sold one of those. I needed loans and stuff, but we bit the bullet and moved to L.A. Couldn’t afford to live in Hollywood where AFI was located so we lived way out in Rancho Cucamonga. It was about two, two and a half hours a day one-way. We could get a two-bedroom apartment out there for a reasonable price.

This ends Part 1 of my Q&A with Ramage. But just like in a good screenplay the goals, obstacles, and stakes are clear. He desires to be a screenwriter, but he (A) Didn’t go to college, (B) Didn’t start writing until he was in his mid-twenties, (C) Was told his first writing effort wasn’t a very good novella, (D) Lives and works in Colorado, (E) Decides to uproot his wife and child and go to film school in California, and (F) Ends up renting a place that means he will have a significant commute to school.

Who’s betting on that guy? Reminds me of this screenwriting adage:

“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.”
— William Froug

Part 2 of this interview will continue Ramage’s own personal Hero’s Journey and discover how he found success in a competitive field.

Related posts:
Spielberg on Good Drama
Screenwriting Quote #29 (William Blinn writer of Brian’s Song)
Flaming Rejection
Do You Have To Live in L.A. to Make It as a Screenwriter?
What’s it Like Being a Struggling Writer in L.A.?
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.
Why You Should Move to L.A.
Screenwriter/Salesman Pete Jones 

Scott W. Smith

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Someday I’ll wish upon a star
Wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where trouble melts like lemon drops
Over the Rainbow
Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen
Performed by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz 
Named #1 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs

P.S. Long before the classic The Wizard of Oz hit theaters in 1939, the Frank Baum story was a Broadway hit in 1903 and a silent film failure in 1925. Despite not being a box office success and losing the Oscar for Best Picture to Gone with the Wind, according to the Library of Congress, The Wizard of Oz (1939)—thanks to its many viewings in the early decades of TV— “has been seen by more viewers than any other movie.”

Related post:
‘Shelter From The Storm’ (Dylan)
The Weather Started Getting Rough…
…and Dark and Stormy Nights

Scott W. Smith

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“Boris was a great artist. He did a beautiful job under difficult conditions. The weather was cold and overcast. We rushed to shoot the film in 35 days. Cheap is fast. Every day costs money. Spiegel, the producer, was on Kazan’s tail to go faster. We were pleased by the way the film turned out. Everybody was against it. We overcame all the obstacles.”
Screenwriter Budd Schulberg on Director of Photography Boris Kaufman who won an Oscar for shooting On the Waterfront which Schulberg won an Oscar for writing
on the waterfront

In the past year and a half I’ve been giving away boxes of my screenwriting and productions books to high schools and colleges. Last week I went through my bookshelves again and came up with two more boxes of books to give away and this batch includes William Froug’s Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade which was first published in 1992.

I flipped through my copy heavy with yellow highlighter marks looking for something I hadn’t covered on this blog before. Here’s the quote that jumped out at me:

“You are almost always better off if your scene is located outside in an interesting location with things happening in the background and all around the talkers. Keeping the characters moving helps. Movies are about moving pictures.”
Producer/writer/professor William Froug
Screenwritng Tricks of the Trade

Since this summer I’ve been calling these posts part of Screenwriting Summer School, it would be an interesting test to write down your all time favorite movie scenes and see if the majority of them are inside or outside. I know some screenwriters have a color coding index card system to see if they have a nice contrast of interior and exterior scenes. (Can’t recall anyone else saying you’re, “almost always better off if your scene is located outside.”)

The first exterior scene that jumped to my mind is the playground scene from On the Waterfronwritten by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan. A simple walk and talk scene with Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando. It’s an understated scene and a bit of an exposition dump, but the good girl/bad boy scene (and their relationship) is important for the transformation of Brando’s character.

It’s a scene that does move the story forward and ties into the climax at the end of the story. I also like this scene because it’s an indie filmmaker-friendly kind of scene. It would be possible to shoot this scene with two actors and a four person crew. (How? Read The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns.)

The playground scene opens with a dolly shot* that runs a full two minutes without a cut. But it’s an elegant scene that’s not only well written and acted but watch it a couple of times and see how the direction and cinematography of this outdoor shot work to make the shot visually interesting. There’s the smoke from trashcan fires floating by, the swing set, the dropped glove, the stick of gum, the Manhattan skyline across the river, and the wrought iron fence—all of which to help make the three and a half-minutes visually interesting.

Van Gogh once said that he’d be content with water and a Rembrandt painting. I feel that way about On the Waterfront—a 1954 film that won 8 Oscars including Best Picture, and which the AFI lists as the #8 best movie of all time.

P.S. For what it’s worth, the climax of On the Waterfront is set outside. But the scene most played from the movie “I coulda been a contender” is set inside a car, and Karl Malden’s well-known speech is an interior scene. If someone’s expanded Froug’s outside comment please send me the link.

I’ve been watching the first season of The Sopranos (another Jersey-centered mob story like On the Waterfront) and I know cable TV—especially in the 90s before The Sopranos changed the face of TV—doesn’t have the budgets of an average Hollywood movie, but there’s a lot of sitting around and talking on The Sopranos. (Same for the #2 rated all-time TV show Seinfeld.)

Perhaps that’s the nature of the beast and it’s not fair to compare a top Tv show with a top movie.  Last year the Writer’s Guild of America named The Sopranos as the top show in television history. Created by David Chase it stands on it own and paved the way for one of the writers on The Sopranos, Matthew Weiner, to create Mad Men. And while Mad Men has its share of interior shots, the set design and set decorating of show set a new standard in Tv of how visually interesting an interior shot can be. And I’m sure there are plenty of Breaking Bad fans who would rather watch the compelling opening scene of the series a few times over the scene I chose from a black and white film that’s 60 years old.

This isn’t really about is TV more like theater than film, or a debate if TV writing is the best dramatic work being done today. It’s just three sentences by the one-time TV producer/writer and former UCLA professor Mr. Froug that I hopes helps you contemplate about your scene settings.

Here’s the second exterior scene that came to mind:

*A small indie crew couldn’t lay the tracks needed to do that On the Waterfront dolly shot with the large camera they used, but they could quickly set up and use a shorter dolly move using something like a Dana Dolly or what I have the Porta Jib Explorer. (I’ve even set my up in as little as 10 minutes shooting solo.) Or you could ditch the tracks altogether and using something like the MOVI.

Update: I learned that the studios wanted to shoot On the Waterfront on the lot in Los Angeles, but Kazan said it was an ‘East coast movie” and fought and won to shoot it in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Related posts:
The Source of ‘On the Waterfront’
Telling Our Own Shadow Stories
Paying for Transformation (Tip #65)
Kazan on Directing (Part 1) 

Scott W. Smith 

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“People have a great need to have their emotions expressed and affirmed by stories.”
Dona Cooper

Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV, written by Dona Cooper, was first published back in 1994. But it wasn’t until I flipped through it last night that I really connected with her chapter on emotions.

They say when you re-read a book years after the first read through that the book hasn’t changed but you have.  That is definitely the case for me in part because last year I wrote the longest thread ever on this blog around one topic: Emotions. Beginning with Filmmaking Quote #25 (David Fincher) where he said, “Directors make things that you are supposed to get an emotional hit off of.  You’re supposed to feel something,” and ending with 40 Days of Emotions, which concluded by a great quote by Karl Iglesias, “Emotion is your screenplay’s lifeblood.”

So this time around, I was better primed when I came upon these words:

“Audiences like stories because stories give them emotional experiences they often can’t have in real life. Just like riding a real roller coaster gives people an opportunity to enjoy experiences that are more exciting than their everyday lives, a captivating story roller coaster provokes the same sense of exhilaration that makes audiences feel truly alive.

Yet most stories are entirely fictional and even those based on fact are still somewhat artificial, so why should a fictionalized story event have such emotional impact on audiences? How can emotions provoked by such an artificial medium be so compelling?

The reason is that people think in stories. Dreams, worries, gossip, religion, myth, and science are all stories that humans have created to give some sense of order and meaning to their lives that they can’t always find in everyday experiences…. In order to be emotionally involving, the pieces of the story eventually have to become personally meaningful, and the more direct the connection, the more power the story has.” 
Dona Cooper (Former AFI instructor now at UNC School of the Arts)
AFI’s Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV
Pages 14-15

Scott W. Smith

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“We are languishing in a period without much direction and no shared body of ideas about what we and our society are all about. Now, as never before, we need people who have stories to tell that make sense and order out of the daily avalanche of sensation, news, events; the function of the artist in society is to reveal the order of the universe, to trace the grand design that others cannot see. That is what story is.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon)

That quote actually gives you a little glimpse into the roots of this blog. This is not a recent quote from the now 86-year-old Pierson lamenting how we’re lost in 2012 without any direction home. I actually don’t know how old that quote is—but it’s at least 20-years old. 

Earlier this week I pulled a notebook of mine off a shelf that’s about an inch thick of screenwriting notes and old articles. I flipped through the notebook looking for a little inspiration and came across an article from American Film Magazine. So while I don’t know the specific month or year of the article, I do know that American Film, a publication of AFI ceased printing in 1992—so it’s at least two decades old.  

The article is titled The Screenwriter: An Essential Element and was written by Jean Firsteneberg, who headed the American Film Institute in 1980—2007, and is now AFI’s President Emerita.

And since the article states that Pierson is the Writers Guild president, which he was between 1981-83*, that means that quote is closer to 30 years old. If Pierson thought we had a “daily avalanche of sensation, news, events” 30 years ago—what does he think now? (Love to interview him and ask if anyone has any connections to him.)

What does in think now that we’re bombarded with You Tube videos, Twitter feeds, 24-hour cable TV, Facebook updates, streaming Netflix and video on demand, email, cell phones with Internet access, and the Real Housewives of Wherever?

Perhaps he’d echo the words of Flight Club philosopher/theologian Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt); “Our great war is a spiritual war.” 

* The Harvard educated Pierson was also the Writers Guild president from 1993-95, but that was after the American Film magazine had already ceased publication.

P.S. Notice in right corner of my little iPhone photo the distinctive round sign of paper printed on a dot matrix printer. All waiting for the era of blogging so these words could have a new life.

Scott W. Smith

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“I think boxing’s pretty dumb, and I’ve never been a boxing fan.”
John G. Avildsen
Oscar winning director of Rocky


AFI lists the character Rocky Balboa on their all-time movie hero list at #7 and the film Rocky as the #4 most inspiring film of all time. Writer/actor Sylvester Stallone has understandably gotten plenty of honor for the 1976 film. But the other side of Rocky is director John G. Avildsen.

Though we may never know Avildsen’s role in guiding Stallone in the re-writing process, it’s clear his vision and direction helped Rocky win three Oscar Awards; Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Picture.  Avildson’s had just released his first film just seven years before Rocky. A film shot in just seven days that he said in one interview, “It was pretty bad, but it got me my next job and my next job.” It was also a film that he not only directed, but shot and edited as well.

While digital filmmaking and non-union work has made writing, directing, and shooting more common on short films, it’s still pretty uncommon in the feature film world outside of Robert Rodriguez.  But I thought you’d find it interesting to learn where Avildsen honed his skills as a director, cameraman and editor long before he took home the Oscar Award:

“When I first started doing this I was doing industrial films for an advertising agency that did industrial shows and so forth. So I’d make this movie that ran anywhere from a few minutes to an hour for IBM or Clairol or Shell Oil to get their salesmen excited about whatever it was they were trying to get them excited about. So I was hired to direct these things and I hired myself as the cameraman and as the editor and did the things myself and it was a great learning process. It was fun to do. There was very little supervision and you could use whatever music you wanted and that’s how I started. And I figured I was a more attractive commodity to the buyer if for the same eight bucks you got three jobs instead of  one. ”
John G. Avildsen
John A. Gallagher Interview

Avildsen also directed the 1984 version of The Karate Kid in which Pat Morita was nominated for an Oscar.

P.S. In regard to that opening quote about Avildsen not being a boxing fan, it’s interesting to point out that Martin Scorsese originally told Robert De Niro that he was not interested in directing Raging Bull because he was not a fan of boxing. 

Scott W. Smith

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“If you’re just some dude or dude-ette from Oklahoma with a dream of seeing your name in lights, know that you’re one of millions.”
Internet post by leinbl00

“I graduated with an MFA from UCLA. The odds I heard were that only 1 in 5 of us would have any appreciable career. I graduated 5 years ago. I’m the most successful (so far) in my class, with one script bought and made, one webseries delivered to the web and one further indie feature that I co-produced now reaching the festival circuit — but all my success only puts me on the lowest tier of the Hollywood game. I’m still struggling… I’m still broke.”
Internet post by Riter

This morning I came across an exchange on Reddit (via the blog Complications Ensue) and I’m not sure of the original source, but I found it interesting. This was the original question posted somewhere online:

Q.) I was just wondering what it’s like being a struggling writer in LA. What’s the day to day life like? How do you make ends meet, do you wait tables at night and write during the day? I’m not asking specifically for people who have sold scripts, but anyone who is really struggling to find work in the business, or has already.

Here is the abridged “realistic but not quite cynical” answer from a longer thread by  someone who goes by kleinbl00;

“I’ve optioned two scripts. I’ve made enough money at it to be ineligible for the Nicholl. I’ve seen some of my work show up on the big screen. I count among my friends some exceedingly pro screenwriters, a few struggling directors, a couple producers, and storyboard artists, makeup artists, art directors and concept designers whose work you have seen dozens of times. I’m hip-pocketed at one of the Big 5 and have, in the past, had offers of representation by managers you see prominently on the Black List.

I make ends meet by mixing sound.

If you’re a screenwriter with a hope and a dream out there in Middle America, STAY THERE. The screenwriting-as-hobby sphere of influence (lookin’ at you, Austin Film Festival) will have you believe that “if you write it, they will come.” What they don’t tell you is that USC, UCLA, Cal Arts, Loyola, AFI, Claremont and half a dozen smaller programs are turning out hundreds of grads a year, who already have the connections you need to make, who have already learned the lessons you need to learn, and are already going to the parties you wish you could attend.”

What’s it like being a struggling writer in LA? It’s like being one goose in an unwanted sea of geese. When there’s just a few of you you’re magnificent, marvelous birds… but when there’s as many of you as there are in LA, it’s like being a public health menace and knowing it.

My intent, when I made the move down to LA, was to get into the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. And I got a 1530 on my GREs, and I’d written 5 screenplays, and I had a letter of recommendation from one of the biggest screenwriters in modern Hollywood, and they told me to pound sand. I was good’n’pissed about that for a while.But I came down and I started mixing and I landed on a pretty big show. And the guy who changed the coffee and made sure we had enough snacks in the breakroom and did whatever scut work the producers told him to do? MFA, Peter Stark Producer’s Program, USC.*

And with that cue Albert Hammond‘s great and timeless song It Never Rains in Southern California

Bottom line—Don’t Waste Your Life, and don’t bitch about how hard it is to sell a screenplay until you’ve invested 10,000 hours in writing, and know that every once in a while someone in the fly-over states actually separates themselves from the rest of the geese.

* Don’t bet against the USC person who spent $100,000 on his MFA and is currently working 18 hours days on a set making minimum wage. He or she is not unemployed, they are educated, and they’re making plenty of contacts—and I’m guessing he/she is hungry and has passion. (And with overtime still brings home enough a month to more than cover their part of the rent of the small apartment they share with other PAs in Koreatown.)

Scott W. Smith


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