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“One of the best films about American life that I have ever seen.”
Roger Ebert on Hoop Dreams

Tonight in Chicago Kartemquin Films has a public gala at the Harris Theater as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. Congratulations to the Kartemquin team and “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James for producing quality films and being a light upon the path.

The quote below is taken from a longer Q&A from The Criterion Collection:

TCC Question: Was there a particular reason you chose to make movies in Chicago, rather than New York or Los Angeles?

Steve James: When I was going to leave grad school, I was married—still am—and I floated the idea of maybe going to New York, and my wife just did not like that idea; it seemed too intimidating to go there. Los Angeles was a possibility, but I wasn’t particularly interested in L.A. I knew I wanted to do this Hoop Dreams idea, and I knew New York would be a good place, but I knew Chicago would also be a good place to do this story because of the tradition of basketball in this city. I liked the idea of coming to Chicago; I didn’t know much about Chicago, but a big part of my motivation for coming there was I needed to go some place where there was an industry and a way to make films.

Seeing Hoop Dreams at the Enzian Theater when it was first released in the mid-90s was one of the most moving experience I’ve eve had watching a movie. Steve James and his team spent 7 or 8 years making that documentary, so if you’ve never seen it I encourage you to see it and celebrate the work Kartemquin Films has been doing for 50 years.

Cheers—

Related posts:
Screenwriting da Chicago Way 
Friday Night Hoop Dreams

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I had this kind of 1930s childhood because my dad was really into radio serials, and my parents were also very, very anti-TV… It certainly was helpful having grown up with my dad as a film professor, and I studied movies and worked at EW for 10 years…If you’re wondering if I’ve always written dark stories—yes. Starting at age 8.”
Author Gillian Flynn (Dark Places, Sharp Objects) who was born in 1971
(Pieced together from three different articles.)

I’m always curious where writers come from and since Gillian Flynn went from being unemployed just a few years ago to be a multimillionaire, NY Times best selling author and screenwriter (Gone Girl) I thought I would show that she may have come out of the Midwest—but she didn’t exactly come from nowhere.

She was raised in Kansas City, Missouri and both of her parents taught at Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley Community College. She did her undergraduate work at the University of Kansas and graduate work at Northwestern University—not far from where the 43-year-old writer lives now in Chicago.

“I was a Missouri kid in New York working at my dream magazine (Entertainment Weekly) and got laid off and had to figure out what to do with my life next. I did have more time to write; [Gone Girl] was the first of the three books that I wrote while I didn’t have a day job. I think it let me overwrite — I probably wrote two books and had to chop it back to one. I had done journalism school at KU and gotten my master’s at Northwestern, and I thought I wanted to be a crime reporter. Very quickly, I discovered I did not have what it takes to be a good crime reporter: I was too unassertive and a little bit wimpy. It was very clear that was not what I was going to do, but I loved journalism, and I’m the daughter of a film professor, and my mom taught reading. I grew up in a house full of books. So I applied straight to EW right out of Northwestern.”
Gone Girl author and screenwriter Gillian Flynn
Hollywood Reporter article by Kimberly Nordyke

In other words, she followed a similar (yet different) path of fellow Northwestern University grad, screenwriter John Logan. She wrote a lot. If she was writing stories when she was eight, then it was a about a 30 year journey before her literary success.

Related posts:
How to Be a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) “I graduated from Northwestern. I had no money. No one had any money. So I got a day job, shelving books at the Northwestern University Law Library. Every morning I would work from nine to five and shelve books, for ten years. Every single day for ten years. “—Three-times Oscar nominated John Logan (Gladiator, Hugo, Aviator)
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70)
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Scott W. Smith

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“I haven’t seen too many films since Blade Runner (1982) to be honest with you.”
Director William Friedkin in a 2012 interview

William Friedkin tells of something he did on the road to becoming an Oscar-winning director (The French Connection) that I imagine a small percentage of people who want to be filmmakers have ever done—watch one movie five times in a single day. That one film changed his life. But before I tell you which film that is, let me give you a quick recap of the skills he acquired before he directed his first feature film in his early thirties.

Friedkin was the son of Russian immigrants and grew up in a one-room apartment in the north side of Chicago, but “didn’t know we were poor until I left high school.” He left high school without a degree, and got a job in the mail room at a local television station. He made his way into production and worked on 2,000 local tv programs. His Tv work included even thing from kids programs to the documentary The People vs. Paul Crump (1962).

Citizen Kane is the film that made me want to become a filmmaker. I saw it when I was 20-years-old. I had no idea what I wanted to do. And somebody told me there was this really interesting old film playing at the Surf Theatre in Chicago on Dearborn and Division. And I trusted this guy’s opinion so I went there on a Saturday at noon, and I left the theater at midnight. I saw it five straight times. Whatever that was, that was what I wanted to do. To me it’s the greatest film ever made, because it synthesizes everything that was found in the past, and it points the way to the future.”
William Friedkin
Fade In/William Friedkin’s Favorite Films of all Time

P.S. While I don’t know how many times Friedkin has seen Citizen Kane, I imagine it’s over 50 times. I saw a list recently where he talked about 10 of his favorite films—all of which he’d seen at least 50 times each. Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch the George Stevens’ classic A Place in the Sun 50 times.

Related posts:

Orson Welles at USC in 1981 (part 1)
Study the old masters.’—Martin Scorsese
Orphan Characters (Tip #31)
‘Stagecoach’ Revisited  “[Citizen Kane director Orson] Welles not only watched the film 40 times, but when once asked who his favorite three film directors where said, ‘John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.'”
Screenwriting Quote #38 (Orson Welles) And the early roots of Welles who also had a connection to the greater Chicago area.
Screenwriting da Chicago Way (2.0)

Scott W. Smith

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“His body was battered, his whole world was shattered
And all he could do was just cry…”
Jimmy Buffett
He Went to Paris

When you think of musician Jimmy Buffett in terms of geography you probably think of the south, but did you know part of his early performing roots were in the Midwest?

Buffett was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi and raised in Mobile, Alabama, graduated from college in Hattiesburg, MS (Southern Miss ’69, journalism degree), and started performing in public in Biloxi, MS and New Orleans, Louisiana, spent time in Nashville, Tennessee and broke through while living in Key West, Florida. So where exactly does the Midwest play into his success as a singer/songwriter/storyteller? I’ll let Buffett explain:

“Chicago is where I truly cut my teeth as a performer, working as the opening at the Quiet Knight. I opened for a variety of people from Neil Sedaka to Bob Marley, and when I got frustrated with the crowds, the old one-armed clean-up man with the big German shepherd always consoled me. It took me a few days of asking to find out that Eddie was more than a janitor. He was a gifted painter and a wonderful pianist. We would stay up after the club closed, and he would sing me songs from the Spanish Civil War where he had fought as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade against the Fascists. Eddie Balchowsky was indeed an inspiration. He was larger than life, and as Mark Twain said, ‘he’d gone out into the territory.’ This song is a tribute to his spirit.”
Jimmy Buffett
Introduction to He Went to Paris
The Parrot Head Handbook from Boats, Beaches, Bars & Ballads

Here’s He Went to Paris in the form of a 1973 music video:

And another reason to love You Tube— below is a clip from a 1989 documentary that actually features an interview with none other than Eddie Balchowsky (including him playing the piano one-handed) just months before he died in an accident in Chicago.

To borrow from that Pat Conroy post a couple of days ago, writers do what Buffett did, they go do work to do a job and wait for the one-armed man to show up. That’s where stories come from. That’s how you “capture the magic” (to a use phrase Buffett spoke a few years ago on a 60 Minutes interview).

By the way, back in the folk music heyday, Chicago had a steady stream of artists playing there— Jim Croce,  John Prine and Steve Goodman to name a few. One of my favorite Buffett recordings was written by the Chicago-born Goodman, Banana Republic.

And just in case you’ve never heard of Steve Goodman, here’s a video of him singing his signature song that has been covered a few times since he wrote it:

Related Post:

Screenwriting the Chicago Way  (In this 2008 post, I said if Screenwriting from Iowa …and Other Unlikely Places had a theme song that City of New Orleans would be a fitting choice.)

The Bump In Factor (Post about meeting Dirck Halstead at NAB a couple of years ago. Dirck was a combat photographer for LIFE magazine and was working for UPI during the fall of Saigon. He now heads up TheDigitalJournalist.)

P.S. The Jimmy Buffett concert tonight (April 17,2012) in Des Moines will be broadcast on Radio Margaritaville at 9PM easten time.

Update: Found this article Painter, Poet Ed Balchowsky at the Chicago Tribune website.

Scott W. Smith

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“The fact is, when I wrote Juno—and I think this is part of its charm and appeal—I didn’t know how to write a movie.”
Diablo Cody

Today marks the two and a half-year anniversary of starting this blog— Screenwriting from Iowa. A blog that got its start after seeing the movie Juno and reading the articles about screenwriter and University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody who jump started her career by blogging. Two and a half years ago blogging was still pretty much a mystery to the masses. Just put your stuff out there and see what happens was Cody’s encouragement to anyone who would listen.

She walked away with an Oscar in 2008 and later that year I won a Regional Emmy in Advanced Media for Screenwriting from Iowa. (Juno Has Another Baby.) It was all the sweeter that I received the Emmy in Minneapolis where Cody happened to write Juno.

My goal with this blog from the start has been to encourage and inspire writers and filmmakers around the country to hone their craft as they pursue writing for Hollywood, ultra low-budget filmmaking, or something in between. Along the way I’ve also shown writers in Los Angeles who write stories that take place far from the shadow of the Hollywood sign. (Usually, because they came from outside L.A. originally, or they are adapting a novelist who set a story in their neck of the woods.)

Cody was not the first writer outside L.A. to breakthrough, nor will she be the last. But I believe she is the poster child for screenwriters originally from outside L.A. who desire to write something so original that it leap frog’s the zillions of other more experienced screenwriters. Really, how many screenwriters does the public know by name?

That doesn’t mean that she is loved and adored by everyone. I’m sure she even understands some of the Cody backlash, because how many people walk away with an Oscar on a first script that they were just flirting around writing?

“I think I went into (writing Juno) as an experiment; I didn’t really have a whole lot invested in it. It was more something I just wanted to try. I had no idea throughout the whole process that this would ever wind up being a produced screenplay or that this would ever end up being cast with these amazing actors. There was absolutely no pressure on me because I was just sitting in Minnesota writing for my own edification. So I think that was freeing in a lot of ways.”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

That has to make all of those screenwriting gurus cringe. And tick off a few writers who have been at it five, 10, 20 years. And if that doesn’t, this will:

“I guess ignorance is bliss is the best way of putting it. [laughs] The only thing I did was I went to Barnes & Noble and bought the shooting scripts for a couple of movies that I liked so I could see how they looked on the page and that gave me a little structural guidance. but that was all I did. ”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

But what about all those screenwriting classes and workshops you’re supposed to take and all those books on screenwriting you’re supposed to read, on top of the years of writing screenplays? Nah, remember Cody was just flirting with screenwriting. Juno was her first attempt and she cranked it out in six weeks at a Starbucks inside a Target store in the Minneapolis suburb of Crystal. Was it a flawless, script? Perfectly tuned like the screenwriting gurus tell you it has to be? Not according to Cody.

“When we sent that screenplay out it was riddled with typos and formatting errors because I had no idea what I was doing. [laughs] My manager was so stunned that I had turned out something vaguely coherent that he just said, ‘Let’s just throw it out there and see if anybody likes it.’ We didn’t really obsess; I think it was just a case of expectations being so low that there was not a lot of polishing and spit-shinning going on.”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

It would be easy to just say Cody got lucky. That would be a mistake. How did she get a manager in the first place? Because her manager-to-be (Mason Novick) came across her blog and saw talent and originality. Perhaps a freshness that’s not easy to find in L.A. when everyone is going to the same screenwriting workshops, reading the same screenwriting books, going to the same screenwriting expos, and hanging out at the same L.A. restaurants or sitting on the same L.A. freeway.

Thanks in part to the plethora of new books and seminars on screenwriting, a new phenomenon is taking over Hollywood: Major scripts are skillfully, seductively shaped, yet they are soulless. They tend to be shiny but superficial.”
Richard Walter
UCLA Screenwriting Professor

Part of what sets Cody apart is, to use Colin Covert’s phrase, she is “scary-smart.” She had 12 years of Catholic school, was raised in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Media Studies from the University of Iowa. While not in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate program, that was part of what attracted her to Iowa. While she had never written a screenplay before Juno, she thought of herself as a writer and had been writing on a regular basis (poems, short stories, etc.) for 15 years before she turned her hand to screenwriting. (Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours)

And I love the fact that not three miles from where Cody wrote Juno is a Minneapolis bar called Grumpy’s where screenwriter Nick Schenk wrote much of Gran Torino that in 2009 would become Clint Eastwood’s highest grossing film that he’s ever starred in. (Screenwriting Postcard from Minneapolis.) If Cody and Schenk don’t inspire you nothing will.

“Aspiring screenwriters always ask what’s the best way to break into the Hollywood? I say move to Minnesota.”
Writer Ken Levine (Frasier, MASH, Cheers)
How to sell a screenplay by drinking in a bar

Thanks again to Ms. Cody for the nudge to jump into the blogging world. And thanks to everyone for stopping by to read what I post, because without readers it would be hard to have written the 600+ posts I’ve written so far.

P.S. In yesterday’s post I mentioned that I’d explain why Clark Gable would be attracted to Diablo Cody and here’s my reasoning. A Time magazine article said, “Gable liked his women to be both sacred and profane.” It doesn’t take much reading about Cody to realize she is both scared and profane. While the profane aspects get more press, Cody’s sacred side is more fascinating to me. And it certainly doesn’t hurt her originality.

Read her 2005 post Finding My Religion to see a theological side to Cody that probably can only be matched in Hollywood by the Calvinist-raised Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver). One thing Cody says she’s never flirted with is atheism. Here’s a sample of her pre-Juno writing;

“I’ve had my share of core-rattling Touched By an Angel moments–brief instances in which God seemed to be standing right beside me, tousling my overprocessed hair like a kind scoutmaster–but most of the spiritual epiphanies I’ve had in my life were far earthier, borne of personal reflection, diverging beliefs, and the admission that I can’t ever fully grasp the sacred.”

Related Post: The Juno-Iowa Connection
Juno Vs. Walt
The Oscars Minnesota Style
The Fox, the Farm, & the Fempire
Life Beyond L.A. (The first blog on January 22, 2008)

Update June 23, 2010: Here is what Diablo Cody (@diablocody) wrote on Twitter: “@scottwsmith_com Thank you for writing that kind and lovely piece. I truly appreciate it.” Yeah, that’s a good way to start your day.

Scott W. Smith

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“Writing a good movie brings a writer about as much fame as steering a bicycle.”
Ben Hecht

“The job of turning good writers into movie hacks is the producer’s chief task.”
Ben Hecht

Screenwriter Ben Hecht was born in 1894 just as moving pictures were being invented. Before he died in 1964 he worked on 70+ films and wrote many plays and books. He was the first screenwriter to ever win an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Story. He’s considered  one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of motion pictures.

Hecht was born in New York City and spent time on the lower east side before moving to Racine, Wisconsin. where his mother worked in downtown Racine. For those keeping score, Racine is not far from Kenosha, WI where Orson Welles was born.

After graduating from high school in Racine and briefly attending college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (for all of three days), Hecht went to Chicago where he eventually began working for newspapers (Chicago Journal and The Chicago Daily News). His first novel (Erik Dorn) was published in 1921. His Chicago-basedplay The Front Page was written in 1928 and was made into films several times. His time in Chicago covering murders and gangster would serve him well in Hollywood as those stories translated well to the big screen.

Jumping into the world of movies just as they were using sound, his script for Underworld was released in 1929 and earned him an Oscar award. He sometimes wrote a script in a matter of days and said that he never took longer than eight weeks. Scarface (1932) was written in nine days. He is quoted as saying of his screenwriting career that he was paid, “tremendous sums of money for work that required no more effort than a game of pinochle.”

He was called The Shakespeare of Hollywood but had this to say of his own career: “Out of the seventy movies I’ve written some ten of them were not entirely waste product. These were Underworld, The Scoundrel, Wuthering Heights, Viva Villa, Scarface, Specter of the Rose, Actors and Sin, Roman Holiday, Spellbound, Nothing Sacred.
Ben Hecht

Some of the other movies he worked on (credited and uncredited) include:

Gunga Din
Notorious (Oscar Nominated)
Gone with the Wind
The Shop Around the Corner
His Girl Friday
Stagecoach
Angels Over Broadway (Oscar Nominated)
Viva Villa (Oscar nominated)

He won his second Academy Award for The Scoundrel (shared with Charles MacArthur). Because he sometimes used a pseudonym (partly because he was blacklisted in Europe) we’ll probably never know exactly how many novels, plays and movies Hecht actually wrote. But it’s safe to say that he cranked out his share of pages. Combine the tough-talking gangster persona Hecht carried with the rapid exchange found in His Girl Friday (based on Hecht/MacArthur play The Front Page) and it’s hard to think that Hecht didn’t pave the way for writers Joe Eszterhas and Quentin Tarantino.  (Eszterhas in his book Hollywood Animal called Hecht “the most successful screenwriter in Hollywood history.”

Later in life Hecht had his own TV talk show in New York City (you can find a weak interview he did with Jack Kerouac on You Tube) and was critical of the culture that American movies had helped produce:

“The movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century….Of their many sins, I offer as the worst their effect on the intellectual side of the nation. It is chiefly from that viewpoint I write of them — as an eruption of trash that has lamed the American mind and retarded Americans from becoming a cultured people.”
Ben Hecht

What would he say of TV and the Internet today?

Scott W. Smith

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This blog is not really about Iowa or the Midwest. It’s focus is on screenwriting. But I do put an emphasis on Iowa and the Midwest as it is a fitting metaphor to discuss the process of growing your creative career from unlikely places. Filmmaking in general, and screenwriting specifically, are both usually thought of in terms of L.A. and New York City.

That’s because that is where the honey is stored. It’s the end of the rainbow. It’s the climax found somewhere in the third act. Perhaps it’s best to think of Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside L.A. as a good look at Act 1. The set-up of the story. How writers (and sometimes others) prepare for their moment in the spotlight. (Though I do think that new opportunities are popping all over the place outside of traditional Hollywood circles.)

Which leads me to Super Bowl XLIV. The Indianapolis Colts verses the New Orléans Saints.  The obvious Midwest angle to the 2010 game is quarterback Payton Manning and entire Indianapolis Colts team are from the Midwest. A little less know is Colts tight end Dallas Clark (who had seven catches in the game) is from Livermore, Iowa. (pop. 431 ). But those aren’t my focus.

The key three people in this year’s Super Bowl with a Midwest connection are Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Saints defensive back Tracy Porter , and the Saints coach Sean Payton.

Drew Brees— After Brees finished his high school career in Austin, Texas undefeated as starting quarterback, he chose to attend Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. I’m not sure why he ended up in Indiana, but I imagine it had something to do with him being relatively short (six-foot) and known for not having the strongest arm. But he left Purdue with several Big Ten passing records and was twice a Heisman Trophy finalist.  Two days ago he lead the Saints in their first Super Bowl victory and was named the Super Bowl MVP.

Tracy Porter–Late in the fourth quarter, with Peyton Manning appearing to lead a game tying drive, Porter intercepted Manning and ran it back for a touchdown sealing the victory for the Saints. (Just happens to be the same guy who intercepted Brett Favre in the NFC title game just a couple weeks ago that sealed that victory.) Porter played college ball at Indiana University.  How did a kid from Louisiana end up playing for a college not known as a football powerhouse? Probably because he was undersized and just started playing football in his junior year in high school. But his time in Indiana served him well. The school in Bloomington is less than an hours drive to Indianapolis. Porter said after the game, “I’ve been watching (Manning) since my time at Indiana put up points on the scoreboard.”

Sean Peyton— Payton was born in California but raised in Naperville, Illinois (just outside Chicago) and played quarterback at Naperville Central High School and Eastern Illinois University in  Charleston, IL. When his playing days were over he began assistant coaching and gained experience at various schools including Indiana State, Miami University (in Ohio), and at the University of Illinois. He eventually made his way to become an NFL head coach in 2005 with the New Orleans Saints. The team was long known as the “aints” and in the year before he took over had a record of 3-13. In his first season the Saints were 10-6 and first in the NFC South and Payton was voted NFL Coach of the Year by AP. This season the Saints finished 13-3 and are now Super Bowl champs for the first time.

So there you have it, three men originally from outside the Midwest, who were shaped by their experiences in the Midwest and who would all go on to achieved the highest level of success in the biggest game of their chosen field.

Be faithful in the little things.

Related Post: Beatles, Cody King & 10,000 Hours

Sex, Lies & Mr. Bill (Screenwriting from Louisiana)

P.S. You may never have heard of Eastern Illinois University, but it has more than one tie to the NFL as Brad Childress, head coach of Minnesota Vikings, Mike Shanahan, head coach of Washington Redskins (and who just happened to be the head coach when John Elway and the Denver Broncos won back to back Super Bowls), and Dallas Cowboy quarterback Tony Romo are all alumni of the school. Hollywood? Actor (and Juno producer) John Malkovich attended Eastern Illinois before transferring to Illinois State and going on to help found the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

Scott W. Smith

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