Posts Tagged ‘Craig Mazin’

Screenwriting pep talk for the day:

Here’s the real cautionary tale; We all think we’re special. Every screenwriter I know thinks they’re better than all the [other] screenwriters. And it doesn’t mean sh**. And your heat doesn’t mean sh**. And you aren’t special.

“I consider myself a ‘real writer,’ meaning I do something interesting and unique on the page and people seem to respond to it. Still that doesn’t mean sh**. You have to somehow understand that in a weird way, as special as you are, you aren’t special. 

“Real quick stat. The average career for a screenwriter, I believe, is five years. But you know what that five years is? It’s you sell a spec. You get hot. You flame out. And you’re done.”
Malcolm Spellman (@malcolmspellman)
Scriptnotes podcast with John August & Craig Mazin
Episode 185: Malcolm Spellman, a Study in Heat

Fortunately for Spellman, he survived being the hot new talent in 2002 after his script Core landed him an agent at ICM, survived selling that first spec script (that never got produced), survived a four-year dry spell after the heat faded, and eventually became a writer/producer for the hot new TV show Empire.

So let’s do the math, back up seven years before 2002 (when Spellman began as he said, “trying to learn to write screenplays on a professional level’), until 2015 and it’s been a 20-year journey for Spellman to be sitting in the nice position he’s in today.

It takes a little time sometimes.

In the meantime there is something special about Empire; ratings for one.

“Fox’s Empire is shattering Nielsen records as the only series to rise in the ratings for seven consecutive weeks since its premiere.”
Gary Levin, USA Today
‘Empire’ strikes back as season’s hottest show

P.S. My own very, very loose connection to Empire is a production friend I hired over a decade ago, Lizzy Leigh, worked as an extra on the pilot of Empire when it was shot in Chicago last year.

Related posts:
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
Bob DeRosa’s “Shortcuts”
First Screenplay, Oscar—Precious The 25-year journey of Geoffrey Fletcher
Perseverance & Persistence (Tip #99)
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)

Scott W. Smith

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“Any screenplay can be about any stakes. It can be tiny like trying to get a piece of gum off your shoe or saving the world–it’s irrelevant. The point is the stakes are important to the character and that you care as the audience about what the character cares about. I think of Swingers and [Jon Favreau] making that phone call and how you’re just on the edge of your seat freaking out and going, ‘no, no, no’— just as you are when you’re watching Indiana Jones in exactly the same level of energy from an audience. So it’s just how you build and present those stakes.”
Writer/director David Wain (They Came Together)
Wet Hot American PodcastScriptnotes (with John August & Craig Mazin)

Related Post:

What’s at Stake? (Tip #9 )
To Live or Die? –Howard Hawks quote
Scriptnotes’ 100 Podcast
Raiders Revisited (Part 1)
DAVID MAMET’S BOLD MEMO (?) “Who wants what?”—Mamet

Scott W. Smith

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“Indiana Jones is a master class on how to start a movie. It is a master class.”
Craig Mazin

Congrats to John August and Craig Mazin on their 100th podcast episode of Scriptnotes. They recorded that episode at the end of July and in either episode 100 or episode 101 (the Q&A with the live audience at that event) both August and Mazin said that one of their favorite episodes was where they did an entire episode on Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And if you’ve never listened to an episode of Scriptnotes before Episode 73 is the place to start. I’ve listened to at least 20% of their 100 podcasts and Episode 73 is a gift to the screenwriting community. Here you have two working screenwriters doing something interesting in the world podcasting that I’m not aware has ever been done before—and that is elevating the role of screenwriter to podcasting celebrity.

Throughout film history screenwriters are notorious for being in the background. Sometimes not even in the background but banished to a galaxy far, far way. Again, historically speaking screenwriters have often not even been welcomed on the sets and locations of movies being shot from scripts they wrote.

So while it’s rare to see a screenwriter on a late night talk show, perhaps Scriptnotes signals a new way where screenwriters can have their voices be heard. And Scriptnotes is finding an audience beyond just screenwriters as it’s mentioned somewhere on episode 100/101 that some of the Scriptnotes podcasts have exceeded 200,000 listeners. I don’t think August or Mazin at this point in their career are interested in going the Kickstarter/Indigogo route like Spike Lee or Rob Thomas to fund a film, but if they wanted to their podcast gives them a wonderful platform to build on.

I’d love to see other podcasts pop up where perhaps older and retired screenwriters talking about movies and their writing experiences and challenges. But Scriptcast is great in part because you have two working screenwriters taking the time to talk about the craft and business of Hollywood screenwriting. Keep in mind that both men had a very good February this year.  Frankenweenie, which August wrote, received a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination and Identity Thief, which Mazin wrote, had two weeks at the number one box office position here in the states on its way to a world-wide box-office gross of more than $170 million.

Their Raiders podcast came out in January. Check out the podcast or the trandscript.

“Everything that the movie [Raiders of the Lost Ark] is about is going to happen in the first ten pages. The tone, the characters, their weaknesses, their strengths, their internal flaw, the promise of what the movie will be, the spirit of the adventure, the rules of the world — everything is not only packed in perfectly, but it’s packed in interestingly and dramatically. It is a master class on how to begin a movie.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin
Scriptnotes podcast, episode 73

And while I’m passing out thanks, why not thank Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman, Lawrence Kasdan and anyone else involved in helping bring Raiders of the Lost Ark to life.

Now August and Mazin take Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat to the whipping post in episode 100, but if you’d like to see how Snyder’s principles breakdown Raiders check out the The Raiders of the Lost Ark Beat Sheet.  Lastly, if you’re in Orlando tomorrow (8/4/13) you can see Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Enzian Theater—one of my all-time favorite theaters to watch a movie.

P.S. I first read about the now legendary Raiders of the Lost Ark story transcript with Spielberg, Lucas, Kaufman, and Kasdan back in 2009 on Mystery Man of Film’s post  The “Raiders” Story Conference.  Anyone ever find out who the Mystery Man on Film was?

P.P.S. It may take a few years but I expect to see an indie film someday based on that Raiders story transcript.

Related Posts:
Movie Cloning (“Raiders”)
Raiders Revisited (part 1)
Raiders Revisited (part 2)
Raiders Revisited (part 3)
Raiders Revisited (part 4)
Lawrence Kasdan’s Rejection/Breakthrough
John Ford’s Advice to Spielberg
Filmmaking Quote #2 John August)
Filmmaking Quote #21 (Spielberg)
Filmmaking Quote #22 (Lucas)

Scott W. Smith

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“If there’s one thing I learned in prison it’s that money is not the prime commodity in our lives…time is.”
Gordon Gekko
2009 script Money Never Sleeps written by Alan Loeb

On this repost Saturday I’m going back to a 2008 post I wrote after a tornado hit Iowa. When a tragedy hits somewhere in the world or someone famous dies I think of this post. This week actor James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) died at age 51. My thought and prayers go out to the Gandolfini family. If there is a face to the positive change that hit television in the late 90s it is of Tony Soprano played by Gandolfini.

But Dang, 51 isn’t that old. Though that’s how old screenwriter/blogger Blake Snyder (Save the Cat) was when he died. Shane Black who I’ve been quoting all week is still very much alive at age 51. I happen to be 51. So that number did jump out at me when I heard the news.

Death is no respecter of age—or of persons. So this is just a reminder to have a life beyond your work and creative endeavors.

“Screenwriting is a huge part of my life. It’s my profession, it is my vocation. It has been so for nearly two decades now and hopefully for another decade still. It’s not the most important thing in my life by far. By far! You know, my wife, my kids, it’s not the be all, end all.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin (Identity Thief)
Scriptnotes Ep. 87

Here’s the post that originally ran on May 31, 2008:

“When you drink from the well, remember the well-digger.”
Chinese proverb

Parkersburg, Iowa
©2008 Scott W. Smith

Last Sunday one of my partners at River Run Productions had 15 seconds to make it into his basement with his wife and dog before an EF 5 rated tornado ripped through his Parkersburg, Iowa home.

In less than a minute his house was gone and both cars totaled. But he, his wife and dog were safe. The storm killed seven people, destroyed over 200 homes, and damaged another 400.

Iowa is no stranger to tornadoes, but this one was the most powerful to hit the state in over 30 years. It’s one more reminder that things can change in a New York minute—or even an Iowa minute.

Friday I went to Parkersburg to shoot footage of the destruction and interviews for an insurance company.  I have been through a hurricane in Florida and a major earthquake in California and I have never personally seen the devastation that I saw as the result of that tornado.

From where I took the above photo, every direction I looked basically looked the same. It’s amazing that more people weren’t killed. Human beings tend to have short memories so this is one more thing to help remind us how fragile life is.

I’ve written a lot about writing on this blog but not much about keeping life in perspective with a creative career. The fact is most of us have difficulty balancing our lives.

I’ve collected some of my favorite quotes over the years that are a little random, but I hope there’s something in here that you can hang your hat on—or at least cause you to smile or reflect on your life and dreams. But mainly I want you to understand that whatever creative dreams you have there’s more to life than chasing that rainbow.

“My biggest disappointment so far is that having a career has not made me happy.”
Shane Black
(Quote after being paid $1.75 million for writing The Last Boy Scout and $4M for The Long Kiss Goodnight)

“It’s an accepted fact that all writers are crazy, even the normal ones are weird.”
William Goldman
Adventures in the Screen Trade                                                                  

 “I don’t dress until 5 p.m. I have a bathrobe that can stand…Yes, I am divorced. One writes because one literally couldn’t get another job or has no choice.”
Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind)

“I got into screenwriting for the best of all reasons: I got into it for self-therapy.”
Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver)

“For the first couple of years that I wrote screenplays, I was so nervous about what I was doing that I threw up before I began writing each morning. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s much better than reading what you’ve written at the end of the day and throwing up.”
Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct)

“I’m not very good at writing. If I succeed, it’s by fluke.”
Shane Black (Lethal Weapon)

“If you get rejected, you have to persist. Don’t give up. It was the best advice I ever got.”
Anna Hamilton Phelan (Mask)

“The myth about me is that I sold my first screenplay and it’s true. But I had also worked very hard as a fiction writer for ten years and that’s how I learned the craft of telling stories.”
Akiva Goldman (A Beautiful Mind)
He also has a masters in fiction from NYU

“I spent 18 years doing stand up comedy. Ten years learning, four years refining, and four years of wild success.” (It’s worth noting that Martin was on top when he walked away from stand up comedy and never performed as a comedian again.)
Steve Martin
Born Standing Up

“Starting in 2002, I knew for a fact that I had to get out of this business. It was too hard. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough, it was that it was too hard. What kept me in it was laziness and fear. It would be nice to say it was passion and I’m a struggling artist who didn’t give up on his craft. All of that sounds good, but the truth is it was laziness and fear.” 
Alan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire)

“Like the career of any athlete, an artist’s life will have its injuries. These go with the game. The trick is to survive them, to learn how to let yourself heal.”
 Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way

Dee: “Jane, do you ever feel like you’re just this far from being completely hysterical 24 hours a day?”
Jane: “Half the people I know feel that way. The lucky ones feel that way. The rest of the people are hysterical 24 hours a day.”
Exchange from Lawrence Kasden’s Grand Canyon

“We’re constantly buying crap we don’t need and devoting ourselves to endeavors which, perhaps on reflection, with a little bit of distance, would reveal themselves to be contrary to our own best interest.”
David Mamet      

Everything in this town (L.A.) plays into the easy buttons that get pushed and take people off their path; greed, power, glamour, sex, fame.”
Ed Solomon (Men in Black)

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.
Stephen King

So life in general is hard, and being a writer or in the creative arts is a double helping of difficulty.

Several years ago Stephen King was hit by a van when he was on a walk. One leg was broken in nine places and his knee was reduced to “so many marbles in a sock,” his spine was chipped in eight places, four ribs were broken, and a laceration to his scalp required 30 stitches. It was as if his characters Annie Wilkes (Misery) and Cujo had ganged up on him.

But he had learned a thing or two about adversity after an earlier bout with drugs and alcohol that he eventually won. One of thing things he learned was to not to get a massive desk and put it in the center of the room like he did early in his career. That is, writing shouldn’t be the most important thing in your life.

“Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room.  Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Stephen King
On Writing 

Two years ago I produced a DVD based on the book Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper. The concept was to shoot a Koyaanisqatsi-style video that that showed the arc of life from birth to death. I shot footage from New York City to Denver. I shot footage of a one day old baby in a hospital, people walking into an office building in Cleveland, snow failing in a cemetery and the like.  One of the shots for that video was in Parkersburg, Iowa.

It was a traditional Friday night high school football game at Aplington-Parkersburg High School. (What makes this school unique is though the town only has a population of 2,000 it currently has 4 active graduates playing in the NFL.)  That high school building is a total loss because of the tornado. Here’s a photo of the scoreboard sign that was blown down during the storm.

There will always be the storms of life. And as I’ve written before, movies can help us endure those storms and even inspire us. (“Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”-Carlos Stevens) So work on your craft because we need great stories that give us a sense of direction, but don’t waste your life just writing screenplays.

Related Posts:

Don’t Waste Your Life (Part 2)

words & photos copyright ©2008  Scott W. Smith

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You can file this one under, “What they don’t teach in film school”:

“Penny [Marshall] and Cindy [Williams] would plow through writers, leaving me constantly looking for replacements. Sometimes I would go over to Happy Days and entice a writer or two to come and take a spin on Laverne & Shirley. I pretended it was an easy breezy show to write for, but most of the writers on Happy Days knew better. When you hire actors or actresses for a series, you look for people who have well-rounded-lives with supportive friends and family. But when hiring writers, you look for people with no lives so they will be willing to stay as long as you want them to in order to get the script rewritten before the cameras roll. I searched in comedy clubs, workshops, and bars for writers with no lives who would work late on any episode, difficult or not.”
Garry Marshall
My Happy Days in Hollywood (written with Lori Marshall)

Now Garry didn’t exactly say how Penny and Cindy would “plow through writers,” but he did comment that it was once bad enough that one of the writers wanted to run over the show’s stars with his car when he saw them in the studio parking lot. I have no idea how indicative that is of TV writers today, but here’s a somewhat related quote from the podcast Scriptnotes:

“Your passion is writing. You like the idea of writing screenplays, but that’s not what screenwriting is. Screenwriting is a job where you write and also get punched in the head a lot.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II)
Transcript of Scriptnotes, Ep. 54

So…even if you’re a working screenwriter—not all days are happy days.


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)


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:

Sunset Blvd.
On the Waterfront
Wall St.
Cinderella Man
Ragging Bull
Jerry Maguire
It’s a Wonderful Life
Field of Dreams
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
Ocean’s Eleven
The Perfect Storm
Pretty Women
Trading Places
Indecent Proposal 
The Firm
American Ganster 

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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