Posts Tagged ‘David S. Cohen’

“There are an awful lot of Scott Smiths running around the world.”
                                                                          Scott B. Smith
                                                                          Writer, A Simple Plan, The Ruins 

Years ago when I lived in Burbank I received a phone call asking if I was “the editor Scott Smith.”  Now I was working at a production company as an editor (as well as director, 16mm cameraman, and writer) but I knew the person was talking about the other Scott Smith. In this case, M. Scott Smith the one who edited To Live and Die in L.A.


There’s always another Scott Smith. In fact. if you look on IMDB there are 55 Scott Smiths listed working on various productions. (At least at this point I’m the only Scott W. Smith.)  If the stars lined up someday I could make a film with an entire crew members named Scott Smith. Really I could—and it would be a nice marketing angle. And it really would be “A Scott Smith film.”  

There are Scott Smiths as producer, director, cinematographer, sound recordist, boom operator, actor, visual effects, editor, production assistant, composer, grip, set dresser, and make-up. There is even a character named Scott Smith in Milk. (And another Scott Smith has written a book on film called The Film 100.)

And, of course, there is the screenwriter Scott B. Smith. Armed with an MFA from the writing program at Columbia University the Sylvania, Ohio native came on the scene as a 28-year-old bestselling novelist with his first book A Simple Plan. Then Hollywood came calling and he not only sold the rights to the book but wrote the screenplay for the movie as well (making a lot of money along the way). The film version directed by Sam Raimi was shot in Wisconsin and Minnesota and released in 1998. The reviews were good and it would earn Smith an Academy Award nomination. 

But it did not find an audience making less than its $17 million budget.  It would be another 10 years before he would have another movie produced—The Ruins which was based on his only other published novel. Though the novel and the movie were hailed by Stephen King the movie version failed to find box office success. Who knows if we’ll hear from Smith for another 10-12 years?

But according to various reports and interviews Smith has been writing all along, on a novel he abandoned and on scripts that have either gone unproduced or he didn’t do enough script doctoring to receive a credit. He’s a talented writer with a following and he’ll pop up again. Given the nature of his success in writing thrillers you may be surprised who he credits with teaching him how to write screenplays:

“Ben (Stiller) really taught me how to write a script. I don’t know that he ever explicitly said it, but by imagining the script as a verbal description of a movie, the movie that I wanted the book to be. That’s very simple, but it really was the key to everything for me—just imagining what was on the page. I was shortchanging the visual in my script (A Simple Plan), concentrating on dialogue, which I imagine is a very common first-time screenwriter’s mistake, and to suddenly just do it visually opened up everything for me.”
                                       Scott B. Smith
                                       screenwriter, A Simple Plan, The Ruins
Quoted in Screen Plays by David S. Cohen
                                       page 273-274 

Scott W. Smith 




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Most screenwriters don’t jump onto the world stage like Diablo Cody who won an Oscar for the first screenplay she ever wrote. More often than not they follow a 20 year journey like screenwriter John Logan who was 40 years old when he received an Oscar nominated for his part in writing Gladiator. 

Logan was born in 1961 and graduated in 1983 from Northwestern in Chicago. He started out with a desire to be an actor but fell in love writing when he took a playwriting class.  After Logan finished college, according to David S. Cohn “He stayed in Chicago, writing plays by night and working at Northwestern Law Library by day. Some fourteen years later he was solidly established in Chicago theater.”

His plays including “Never the Sinner” and “Hauptmann” won awards and he also acted on occasion. In 1996 he had his first TV movie produced (Tornado) and in 1999 approaching 40 years old he had his first feature film produced (Bats). A major break through occurred when Oliver Stone optioned his script Any Given Sunday in which Logan eventually earned a story credit and a lesson or two in screenwriting from Stone. 

From then on he left the tornados and bats behind and was in the big time.  In 2000 he received a shared screenwriting credit on Gladiator, in 2002 Star Trek; Nemesis,  in 2003 The Last Samurai, 2004 Aviator, and in 2007 Sweeney Todd.

“My learning curve on writing movies—which, believe me, is still going on, under the tutelage of people like Martin Scorsese—(has involved) the amazing slapping-the-head realization that Leo DiCaprio’s eyes communicate more than a paragraph I have written. Unlike writing for the stage, which is declamatory and presentational for an audience, in writing for a movie you’re really trying to bring the audience in to see, to experience the world through a character’s eyes. For me it’s always stunning to watch actors communicate so silently with one another, in a way that’s as powerful as the greatest line of dialogue I could possibly imagine writing.”
                                                        John Logan
                                                        Quoted in Screen Plays by David S. Cohen

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The 1985 film Witness is one of those movie that pops up again and again in screenwriting books as a fine example of writing. But like Rain Man there are a lot of reasons why the film works and it is an example of a collaboration at it’s best. It was a perfect storm of talent and it resulted in an Oscar award for writers Earl Wallace, William Wallace and Pamela Wallace.

Helping the film become a classic was the direction of Peter Weir, the acting and personna of Harrison Ford, and a wonderful crew that helped the tone of the film set largely in Amish country. Many were nominated for their work on the film, John Seale (Best Cinematography), Maurice Jarre (Best Music, Orginal Score) and Stan Jolly and John H. Anderson (Best Art Direction-Set Direction). And Thom Noble picked up the Oscar for Best Film Editing.

But according to David S. Cohen’s book Screen Plays it all started with a simple story idea from Pamela; “A contemporary cop falls in love with an Amish women.” Earl and William who had written for the old TV show Gunsmoke fleshed the story out and after 16 versions had a well tuned script. Neither had ever written with a partner before and neither had ever had a feature film produced.

There were creative battles fought during the making of the film but at the end of the day it all came together and they made a film that resonated with audiences and the Academy. No small feat. Then the storm was gone. Cohen writes that, yes they won an Academy Award, “Yet the writing team of Wallace and Kelly got no career boost from the success of Witness.” In fact, they had a fall out of sorts and went their separate ways.

The creative process is odd and messy and it’s nice to get a glimpse behind the scene of a script that not only found the light, but that still shines bright almost 25 years later.  Cohen writes, “The film was nosed out for best picture by Out of Africa—the film that gave Kurt Luedtke his Oscar. But Kelly and Wallace won, and from the podium Wallace got off one of the more memorable lines in Oscar acceptance speech history: ‘I have the uneasy feeling my career just peaked.'”

Your career has to peak somewhere — it might as well be at the Academy Awards.

Scott W. Smith

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Screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator, Amistad) might as well be living back home in Vermont (or here in Iowa): 

“In this town (L.A.), if you’re a screenwriter, the two biggest things that are important (are): One, get a life, because the only stuff that’s any good is writing about the life you’ve led, not about the movies you’ve seen. And two, don’t pay any attention to what’s going on in this town. I’ve never read the trades. I don’t go to any screenings. I don’t go to any parties unless I have to. I don’t pay attention to the shit that’s going on here. Because if you do, you’ll start doing what they want you to do, and it’s always wrong. It’s always wrong. That’s why they make such shitty movies. So you have to be free from this place, even if you’re here.” 
                                      David Franzoni
                                      Quoted in Screen Plays by David S. Cohen
                                      page 25 


Scott W. Smith

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I think it’s going to turn into David S. Cohen week as I pull another quote from his book Screen Plays. This one from screenwriter David Franzoni. Before Franzoni won an Oscar for his role in producing Gladiator or worked with Spielberg on Amistad he was a struggling writer like everyone else. He grew up in Vermont and attended the University of Vermont where he studied geology and paleontology. 

By the time he turned his full attention to screenwriting he was in his early 20s. It would take him five years before he would break into the business with a script sale and another 10 years before he saw his first screen credit. By the time that film (Jumpin’ Jack Flash) was released Frazoni was 39 years old. The Oscar would take another 15 years. It’s a process. (For more on the process read the post on Malcolm Galdwell’s chapter The 10,000 Hour Rule from his book Outliers.)

“I remember the day I broke through. I had a meeting with Sissy Spacek and I came out and I’ve got a flat tire. And my spare’s flat. I’ve got twenty-six bucks. I take the spare and roll it down the street. For twelve bucks they patch it for me and I roll it back. I get home. I don’t have an agent. I have a girl at CAA who’s representing me on the side. I get home and there’s a message. ‘Sissy wants to hire you, and we sold the spec script.’ “
                                                       David Franzoni
                                                       Quoted in Screen Plays by David S. Cohen
                                                       page 21

Scott W. Smith

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“Really, normal people are not attracted to this business.”
                                                      (on the music industry) 

“Crazymakers like drama. If they can swing it, they are the star. Everyone around them functions as supporting cast, picking up their cues, their entrances and exits, from the crazymakers’s (crazy) whims.”
                                                     Julia Cameron
                                                     The Artist’s Way 


Today I flew from Orlando to Cedar Rapids and I had the double whammy of sitting in a row with an obnoxious woman and a totally undisciplined child.

It wasn’t the fact that they played peak-a-boo over and over (and over and over again) for 15 minutes that bothered me –it was the fact that the little girl kept kicking me as she jumped around in her seat.

This was even before we took off and I was told by the attendant that I’d have wait until after the plane took off to move because it was going to be an almost full plane.

After the peak-a-boo playtime was over, it was movie time. The little DVD player came out and I had hope that things would calm down. I was wrong. Imagine Mighty Mouse not only being played loudly without head phones but acted out by a large woman who looked like she just walked off the set of The Jerry Springer Show.

This of course made the child twist and turn all the more.

After about the 100th time of being kicked (not an exaggeration) by the child I asked the women if she could have the child not kick me and was informed by the woman that, in fact, the girl wasn’t kicking me.

Things went downhill from there.

And here’s where advice I received from a professor years ago came in handy. It may help you as well — especially if you work in entertainment and media. “Ten percent of the people you meet are crazy. Really, truly, certifiably crazy. “ Maybe I’m being PC but I prefer the term crazymaker.

Experience told me my little airplane situation was not going to be handled in a logical, rational manor and fortunately I was able to move before seat cushions and barf bags were being thrown at me by the crazymaker.

I will say that in the entertainment and media production fields that 10% is low. It’s at least 20%. Read any book on Hollywood and you may conclude that the business is made up by a majority of crazymakers.

A bright spot on my flight today was reading the David S. Cohen book Screen Plays; How 25 Screenplays made it to a theater near you for better or worse. Cohen began as a screenwriter and was credited for a Star Trek episode before realizing that journalism was a better fit for him as a career. He’s written for Variety and Script magazines.

Cohen writes about his transition from screenwriting to writing articles and the effects crazymakers have on creative souls:

“My first article was about Twister. I had no idea what I was doing. But I knew the business and I wasn’t intimidated by actors or directors. My copy wasn’t great, but my editor was patient. I discovered I liked this journalism thing, I was good at it, and it wasn’t crazy-making like screenwriting.

In the meantime, too, my life was unraveling, in that way that so many lives unravel in L.A. I’ll skip the details, but for those considering following this path, just be warned; If you let it, L.A. will take whatever cracks you may have in your personality and blow them wide open. It’s happened to a lot of people. A lot of them ended up dead. I just ended up miserable.”

Keep that in mind as you have various meetings with people in the business. Some writers will have someone tell them that their script is the best they’ve ever read only to never hear from that person again. Some will have scripts optioned with promises of being rushed into production but that never get made. And others have “perfect” scripts that get made yet are a totally different film by the time they hit the screen.  Cohen’s book is an excellent look at how Hollywood works from the perspective of the screenwriter. (I will be pulling more quotes from it in the coming days.)

And crazymakers are not only in L.A., but in Iowa or wherever you live.

Really, normal people are not attracted to this business.


Scott W. Smith

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“Somebody gave me a copy of Robert Mckee’s Story. I said, ‘This is like trying to understand a human being by looking at DNA.’ Maybe we could put the book on the shelf, and right next to it could be the Leslie Dixon book, which would be a flyer saying, ‘Do they want to turn the page?’ That would be my screenwriting manual, and we could put his four-hundred-page tome next to it.”
                                      Leslie Dixon
                                      Screenwriter, Pay It Forward, Mrs. Doubtfire, Hairspray
                                      Quoted in Screen Plays by David S. Cohen Page 123

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