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Posts Tagged ‘Bill Bryson’

“People who have nothing to do with Des Moines drive in off the interstate, looking for gas or hamburgers, and stay forever.”
Bill Bryson
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America

Not every kid who grew up in Iowa would one day have Robert Redford portray them in a movie. In fact, there’s only one person in history I think that applies to—writer Bill Bryson.

Last night I heard Bill Bryson speak at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. His humorous writings were matched by his humorous speaking abilities. His observational style reminded me of Garrison Keillor and Mark Twain, two other writer/speakers with Midwestern roots.

Bryson spoke fondly of growing up in Des Moines during the ‘50s, of his father who was a sports writer for the Des Moines Register, of his adopted county of England, and said that the community of Winter Park was enchanting. (While I did spend an enchanting decade living in Iowa, I have lived in enchanting Winter Park more than any other place.)  Bryson now lives with his family in enchanting Hanover, New Hampshire.

He spoke to the estimated a thousand or so in attendance that there was a certain anonymity of being a writer. That in 30 years of being a published writer no one had ever recognized him on the street. He reflected that he would not recognize some of his favorite writers on the street. He read some short passages from his books and about what a pleasure it was to attend the Sundance Film Festival last year and watching A Walk in the Woods based on his book. At the movie’s premiere, his wife sat on one side of him and on the other side was Redford.

I’ll leave you a one simple practical bit of wisdom from last night’s Q&A:

“What inspires me to write? Bills.”
Bill Bryson

P.S. Des Moines is a much different town today than when Bryson grew up there over 50 years ago and recounted so well in his book The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memior.

In Colin Woodward’s recent article  How America’s Dullest City Got Cool, he unpacks how a place once known as Des Boring reinvented itself:

In recent years Des Moines has been named the nation’s richest (by U.S. News) and economically strongest city (Policom), its best for young professionals (Forbes), families (Kiplinger), home renters (Time), businesses and careers (Forbes). It has the highest community pride in the nation, according to a Gallup poll last year, and in October topped a Bloomberg analysis of which cities in the United States were doing the best at attracting millennials to buy housing. “Never mind California or New York,” Fast Company declared two years back. “By some important measures, Des Moines is way ahead of its cooler coastal cousins.”

That’s one reason why I’ve set my recent spec TV pilot in Des Moines, Iowa. Another enchanting place.

P.P.S. Screenwriters Jim Uhls (Fight Club) and John August (Big Fish, Scriptnotes) both went to college at Drake University in Des Moines.

Related posts:
Postcard #11 (Des Moines)
Postcard #77 (Iowa State Capital)
San Francisco Vs. Des Moines
2010 48 Hour Film Festival/ Des Moines 

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Creative-minded people enjoy a mix of influences. They want to hear different kinds of music and try different kinds of food. They want to meet and socialize with people unlike themselves, trade views and spar over issues.”
Richard Florida
The Rise of the Creative Class

“We focused on places that specialize in out-of-the-box thinking.”
Kiplinger’s editors on their picking the 10 Best Cities for the Next Decade

When people think of Iowa the word creative isn’t usually the first word that pops into their mind. (Nor even the second or third word.) But what makes Iowa a fitting metaphor for screenwriting outside LA (as I have tried to show in the last two and a half years) is some tremendous creative talent has flowed from this state. Way back to painter Grant Wood and playwright Meredith Wilson (Music Man) to current actors from right here in Cedar Falls Michael Mosle and Annabeth Gish.

Certainly every state in America has, to borrow Richard Florida’s phrase, a creative class. In fact, Florida says they actually represent 40 million people in this county. He doesn’t limit the creative to writers and painters but includes those in education, biotech and architecture and small business.

I was living in Orlando when I first read Florida’s book The Rise of the Creative Class and was excited to a see a shift in the culture where creative people were not just tolerated, but seen as a key part of economic development for cities across the country. It’s been a while since I read the book, and I’m not sure how recent economic changes have altered the course of Florida’s predictions, but the lasting impression I got from reading the book is—it’s a good time to be creative.

(And even those in non-creative professions are more creative in their lives these days due to the increasing popularity of home improvements and decorating TV shows, taking better pictures of their kids, cooking gourmet meals. blogging, etc.)

Which brings me back to Iowa. Des Moines has made national news this week a couple of times and they are not unrelated. First when Slipknot bass guitarist Paul Gray was found dead in a hotel room is a Des Moines suburb. Slipknot came on the scene in the 90s and was unorthodox even by heavy metal standards. I’m not sure when people’s perception of Iowa began to changed, but it may have something to do with the founding of Slipknot in 1995—or when the Iowa-based band won a Grammy in 2006 for “Best Metal Performance.” (Maybe someone can fill in the gap between the dreaded Des Moines in the 60s & 70s that Bill Bryson writes about in his books and the Slipknot era.)

The fact is times are changing. A 1999 quote I’m fond of digging up comes from Steven Spielberg; “I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.”
(Interview with Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show)

This week Kiplinger magazine name Des Moines the seventh best city to live and work. (10 Best Cities for the Next Decade.) Austin was listed as #1 and Seattle #2. No surprises there, nor with Boulder a little further down the list—but Des Moines? Really? This is what Kiplinger was looking for:

“Places with strong economies and abundant jobs, then demand reasonable living costs and plenty of fun things to do. When we ran the numbers, some of the names that popped up made us do a double take at first…One key to a bright future is a healthy shot of people in the creative class. People in creative fields — scientists, engineers, architects, educators, writers, artists and entertainers — are catalysts of vitality and livability in a city.”

This is nothing new to people in Des Moines. In a 2002 article by Florida he listed Des Moines as #2 (after Madison, WI) in his “Small-Size Cities Creativity Rankings.”

I’ve been fortunate over the years to have traveled to all 50 of the United States and I’ve seen creative people everywhere; Pittsburgh, Birmingham, Portland, Cleveland, Boston, Santa Fe, Minneapolis, Talkeetna—you get the picture. And I’m sure in all of those places there are screenwriters chipping away on scripts that they hope will find their way to Hollywood or perhaps a local filmmaker who can bring their words to life.

“Screenwriting from Iowa” is just here to give you a little encouragment—a glass of water for thirsty souls on a long journey.

PS. If you happen to find yourself driving through Des Moines on I-80, stop by the East Village downtown to see some of the creative changes happening in Iowa.

PSS. Also making Kiplinger’s top ten list is Rochester, Minnesota. Cedar Falls, Iowa where I live is about two hours south-west of Rochester and about two hours north-east of Des Moines…so once again in the middle of a lot of action.

Related Post: Off Screen Quote #2 (Bill Bryson)

Scott W. Smith


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pella500dsc_62821

Yesterday morning I had a video shoot in Pella, Iowa which if you have never heard about is a taste of Europe right here in Iowa. Not only in terms of the Dutch-inspired buildings, but it’s known for its Dutch letter pastries.

The town was founded in 1847 by Dutch immigrants and the word Pella means “city of refuge.” It’s also known for its tulip festival, the Pella Opera House,  as the home of Pella (windows)  Corp, and where Wyatt Earp spent his childhood 

Pella is also worth a mention by humor and travel writer Bill Bryson.

Bryson, a best-selling writer, was born and raised in Des Moines before going on to write A Walk in the Woods; Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail,  The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and A Short History of Nearly Everything. Just to show you an example of how you can find the humor of just about any place.

“The best county town in Iowa is Pella, forty miles southeast of Des Moines. Pella was founded by Dutch immigrants and every May it still holds a big tulip festival for which they get somebody important like the mayor of The Hauge to fly in and praise their bulbs. I used to like Pella when I was little because many of the residents put little windmills in their front yards, which made it kind of interesting. I wouldn’t say it made it outstandingly interesting, but you learn from an early age to take what pleasures you could find on any trip across Iowa.”
                                                                          Bill Bryson
                                                                          The Lost Continent;
                                                                          Travels in Small-Town America
                                                                          C
hapter one

 

I was told today in Pella that there used to be a sign in Burbank, California back in the 90s that read: Iowa, It’s time to come home.

Pella is ripe for a Groundhog Day-like movie to be shot there. Or maybe The Truman Show Part 2 or Wyatt Earp;The Eary Years.  (If you write one of those scripts make sure to give me an associate producer credit.)

 

photo copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
                                                         Gordon Gekko
                                                         Wall St. 

“Our entire economy is in danger.”
                                                         President George W. Bush
                                                         September 2008    

“When was the last time you cared about something except yourself, hot rod?”
                                                        
 Doc Hudson (voice of Paul Newman)
                                                          Cars       

                                                    

This is a look at two Hollywood icons. One fictitious, one real. One that’s alive and well and one that just died. 

But before we get to our heavyweight match-up let’s look at why I’ve put them in the ring together.

“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase made popular during Bill Clinton’s first presidential bid. It’s always about the economy. Well, usually. Understanding economics can help your screenwriting greatly.  

First let me clarify that if you’re looking for “The Economics of Screenwriting” (how much you can get paid for screenwriting)  then check out Craig Mazin’s article at The Artful Writer

Few things are as primal in our lives as the economy. Wall Street’s recent shake-up joins a long list of economic upheaval throughout history. Just so we’re on the same page, the word economy flows down from the Greek meaning “house-hold management.” I mean it to include how people, businesses, villages, towns, cities and countries manage resources such as money, materials and natural resources. 

That is a wide path indeed. It’s why college football coach Nick Saban is on the cover of the September 1, 2008 issue of Forbes magazine as they explain why he is worth $32 million dollars to the University of Alabama. Why is the economy center stage once again in the most recent presidential election? Because… it’s always the economy, stupid.

Looking back you’ll see economics at the core issue of not only Enron, Iraq, 911 and the great depression but world wars, famines, and even the Reformation. I’m not sure how much further we can look back than Adam and Eve, but that whole apple/fruit thing in the garden had huge economic (as well as theological) ramifications. (In fact, it’s been said that there is more written in the Bible about money than about salvation.)    

There is no question that economics plays a key role in films as well — in production as well as content. On some level it’s almost always about the economy. This first dawned on me when I saw Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard” for the first time and I realized the thread of money in it. Then I read Ibsen’s play  “An Enemy of the People” and noticed the economic theme there. They I started noticing it everywhere in plays, novels and movies.

From the mayor’s perspective the real danger of Bruce the shark in Jaws is he threatens the whole economy of the island town. In The Perfect Storm, George Clooney takes the boat back out because money is tight. Dustin Hoffman auditions as a women in Tootsie because he can’t get work as a male actor. Once you see this you see it everywhere in movies. 

Here is a quick random list where money, need to pay bills, lack of a job, greed and/or some form of economics play a key part in the story:

Chinatown
Scarface
Titanic
Sunset Blvd.
Tootsie
On the Waterfront
Wall St.
Cinderella 
Cinderella Man
Ragging Bull
Rocky 
Jaws
Jerry Maguire
It’s a Wonderful Life
Field of Dreams
Big
Greed
Body Heat
Falling Down
The Godfather
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid 
The Jerk
Gone with the Wind
The Verdict 
Gone with the Wind 
The Grapes of Wrath
Risky Business
Do the Right Thing
Hoop Dreams 
Rain Man
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Gold Rush
Home Alone
Babette’s Feast
The Incredibles
Castway
Ocean’s Eleven
The Perfect Storm
Pretty Women
Trading Places
Indecent Proposal 
The Firm
American Ganster 
Rollover 

And it’s not limited to dramatic films. It’s hard to watch Hoops Dreams, Ken Burns’ The West, or any Michael Moore documentary and not connect it to economics.

So if you’re struggling with a story or struggling what to write, open up that door that explores economics. You don’t have to write The Wealth of Nations, but at least explore some aspect of it.  Join Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Eugene O’Neill and other great writers who tackled that monster.

One thing living in the Midwest the past five years has done is help me understand how the world works economically. Because on a small level you see when John Deere is selling tractors locally, nationally and globally it helps the housing market here as the standard of living increases. The Midwest was the only place to to see homes appreciate last quarter. (Other parts of the country saw a 2 to 36% drop.)  But that wasn’t always the case.

When the farming crisis hit in the mid-eighties and John Deere (Cedar Valley’s largest employer) laid off 10,000 of it’s 15,000 employees and people were walking away from their homes. A film that came out of that era was the 1984 Sam Shepard, Jessica Lange film Country filmed right here in Black Hawk County. (By the way John Deere the company celebrates today 90 years being in this area. If you’ve ever eaten food they’ve had some role in it along the way.)

Three years later Oliver Stone’s film Wall St. came out the same year Black Monday occurred as stock markets around the world crashed. It was the largest one-day percentage decline in stock market history since the great depression. (It only ranks #5 now.)  So here we are 20 years later still trying to figure it all out as two of the top ten largest stock market drops have been in the last two weeks. (Sept 29 update: Make that three of the top ten stock market drops have occurred in the last two weeks.)

(I’m sure Stone felt good when Wall St. first came out, kinda of like “I told you so.” But on the DVD commentary Michael Douglas said that he often told by stock brokers that they got into the business because of the Gekko character he played. Douglas said he doesn’t understand because he was the bad guy. But how many of those guys now in positions of leadership in the financial crisis had Gekko as their hero? To quote writer/professor Bill Romanowski one more time, “Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”

The news will tell us what happened, critics will tell us why it happened, and it’s up to writers to tell us what it means. For years now I have noticed in many different states that more often than not when I go into a convenience store I see someone buying beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets and I ask myself, “What does this say about about the direction we are heading?”

Screenwriting is a place where we can pose those questions –and the playwright Ibsen said it was enough to ask the question.  So get busy asking questions. And if the economy gets worse remember this Carlos Stevens quote:

”Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”

On the opposite end of Hollywood from Gordon Gekko is Paul Newman. If there ever was an example of a talented actor/director and giving businessman/ social entrepreneur it was Ohio-born and raised Newman who passed away last night. Newman’s films Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cool Hand Luke, Absence of Malice and The Verdict will always be favorites of mine.

“I had no natural gift to be anything–not an athlete, not an actor, not a writer, not a director, a painter of garden porches–not anything. So I’ve worked really hard, because nothing ever came easily to me.”
                                                                                            Paul Newman 

 

(Newman’s Midwest roots extend to performing in summer stock theaters in Wisconsin and Illinois. And an Iowa connection is his last Academy Award nomination was for his role in The Road to Perdition which was based on the graphic novel by Iowa writer Max Allen Collins. And don’t forget that the Newman’s Own label was inspired by Cedar Rapids artist Grant Woods’ American Gothic.

I find it interesting that the three largest legendary film actors coming up in the 50s were all from the Midwest; Marlon Brando (Nebraska), James Dean (Indiana) along with Newman.)

Gavin the lawyer Newman played in the David Mamet scripted The Verdict says words that are just as relevant today as when they we spoken a couple decades ago: “You know, so much of the time we’re lost. We say, ‘Please God, tell us what is right. Tell us what’s true. There is no justice. The rich win, the poor are powerless…’ We become tired of hearing people lie.”

The world is upside down when we pay executives millions in golden parachutes when they drive a company into the ground. And that’s after they lied about the about the companies financial record along with their hand picked spineless board of directors. And after they’ve cashed in their own inflated stocks while the stockholders and employees are shortchanged.

But how nice to see a company like Newman’s Own whose entire profits from salad dressing and all natural food products are donated to charities. The company motto is “Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good.” To date Newman and his company have generated more than $250 million to thousands of charities worldwide. 

“What could be better than to hold out your hand to people who are less fortunate than you are?
                                                                                                      Paul Newman

P.S. Robert Redford had hoped he and Newman would be able to make one last film together and had bought the rights to Des Moines, Iowa born and raised Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods

“I got the rights to the movie four years ago, and we couldn’t decide if we were too old to do it,” said Redford. “The picture was written and everything. It breaks my heart.”

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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