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As I watched the Miami Hurricanes football team beat Florida State on Saturday I smiled when I saw the new brass knuckles-like rings that Miami used to celebrate to touchdowns this year.

Here’s the preface to my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles. The book is kind of a greatest hits of the more than 3,000 blog posts I’ve written. Please consider buying a the eBook or paperback as a way to support what I’ve been doing here since 2008. (And starting today, I’m going to make it my goal to go back to blogging daily through the rest of 2020.)

PREFACE

“I wasn’t born knowing how to write a play.”
—Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright

“I wrote screenplays as a way to get into production. I wrote six or seven before I sold one.”
—Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars: Episode V)

In the more than 12 years of writingthe blog Screenwriting from Iowa . . . and Other Unlikely Places, I’ve found advice and insight on the creative process from more than 700 gifted screenwriters, filmmakers, and teachers. I realized that I could consolidate and curate the most powerful of that material as a book, revising and reorganizing it in ways that I thought would be most helpful to people’s creative journeys. I want these ideas to function like brass knuckles in an old-school professional wrestling match.

I don’t know if Aristotle ever used brass knuckles, but they are said to have been around since the ancient Greeks. Abraham Lincoln’s secret service men carried brass knuckles. And legend has it that brass knuckles were Al Capone’s favorite weapon.

The term “loaded fist” in Japanese martial arts refers to a martial arts version of brass knuckles that can turn a punch into a sledgehammer. As a troubled youth in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee carried brass knuckles, giving a twist of meaning to his trademark movie Fist of Fury.

Today brass knuckles are brandished in popular video games and music videos. Spike Lee even wore brass knuckles to the 2019 Academy Awards.

My introduction to brass knuckles was watching professional wrestling on TV as a kid. This was not the high-dollar spectacle of today but the low-budget version, usually taped in a small studio in Tampa, Florida.

Actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s father, Rocky Johnson, was a wrestler in the pre-WWE era when professional wrestling was more regionally orientated and the bag of tricks and storylines were more limited.  (Rocky Johnson was actually the 1976 NWA Brass Knuckles Champion.)

This was at a time in my youth when I didn’t know if professional wrestling was real or not. What I did know was that professional wrestling had a cast of characters with colorful names like Abdullah the Butcher, André the Giant, and Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes and it was flat out entertaining. (Rhodes was the main influence Hulk Hogan used as Hulkamania helped transform pro wrestling into a global phenomenon.)

Inevitably, back then when one wrestler was getting beat up and close to losing a match, brass knuckles would magically appear (usually emerging from someone’s wrestling trunks).

The announcer Gordon Solie would say something like, Wait a minute, what’s he have in his right hand? It looks like a foreign object. Oh no, it looks like a pair of brass knuckles!

At the last minute, this would give the almost beaten wrestler an upper hand in the match. It would result in not only a victory for the trickster but also in a fake bloody mess. For a ten-year-old boy this was as good as a vampire movie.

My goal with this book is not to create a bloody mess, but to offer the equivalent of brass knuckles for writers — screenwriters in particular. Ideas found in this book can serve as powerful resources in urgent moments of desperation—or to avoid those moments altogether.

By screenwriting I mean any screen: the big screen, TV, computers, tablets, mobile devices, virtual reality, video games, and even some non-screen dramatic writing such as theater and podcasts.

This is one of the reasons why I break from transitional conventions of making a differentiation between a screenwriter and a TV writer. What do we call someone who writes for Netflix? A streaming writer? So I just call anyone who writes for something to be viewed on a screen (big screen, little screen, TV, computer, iPad, mobile phone)—I call them a screenwriter.

This book will not substitute for a good writing teacher or mentor, but it can give you some valuable ideas to hang on to, “foreign objects” thrown into the ring as you struggle to craft and tell your own stories.

P.S. The linage of Dusty Rhodes, to Hulk Hogan, to Dwayne Johnson is rather amazing when you think they all have roots to Tampa, Florida.

File this under, it’s a small world: A longtime production friend of mine, Randy Baker, worked with Hulk Hogan on the show Hogan Knows Best and actually was a key person in encouraging me to purchasing my first camera back in 2003. Baker teaches at Full Sail and is currently working on a low budget feature.

Scott W. Smith

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Screen Shot 2020-07-29 at 2.51.28 PM

Ramesh Santanam on The Inside Pitch interview with Oscar winning screenwriter Chris McQuarrie (at the 1:58:58 mark) asked a question about how he dealt with notes from studio executive in the development process and McQuarrie told this great story about a writer who said he got a the “dumbest note he’d ever received” from an executive while working on a remake of Walking Tall (1973). The executive wanted Sheriff Buford Pusser to have a 2″x4″ piece of wood that was a character in the story. McQuarrie didn’t think giving the 2×4 a personality was a dumb note at all.

“I said that’s an excellent note. And he said, ‘That’s the dumbest note,’ Because in his mind he saw Tommy the 2X4 that was a character in the story that had some voice, or spoke to Buford. And I said, ‘Buford and his wife are building a house, or his wife to be are building a house, when the villains of the movie come to kill Buford.  And in the process they fail to kill Buford but they burn his house to the ground. And in so doing his wife is killed. And Buford ends up in the hospital. Now when he gets out of the hospital the first thing he does is he goes to the wreckage of his burned home that was going to be the home where he was going to spend the rest of his life with his wife, and he pulls a 2×4 out from one of the unfinished walls, with nails sticking out of it, and he spends the rest of the movie beating the sh— out of people with that 2×4. Now, don’t you think every time you look at that 2×4 it doesn’t have some meaning? And don’t you think that 2×4 becomes his sidekick in the movie?’” 

Once McQuarrie explained it that way the writer admitted that is wasn’t a dumb note after all.  Back in 2011, I wrote a post called Objective Correlative (Tip #48) that is the fancy literary term T.S. Eliot used to explain how objects in stories have meaning. (Though the phrase was used in the 1800s.) It’s the glass unicorn in The Glass Menagerie, Wilson the volleyball in Cast Away, and Rosebud in Citizen Kane. 

McQuarrie says when you get a note from an executive, know that you are getting a note from someone who isn’t a writer. So what you need to try to do is understand the emotion behind the note. Then you find a way to fit that note into your “storytelling philosophy.” Fix their problem with the story with your understanding.

P.S. I don’t think I’ve seen the original walking tall since it played at the Prairie Lake Drive In back in the ’70s (might have caught a few minutes in TV), but I remember that vividly the character of Buford Pusser played by Joe Don Baker. (And I’d bet that Quentin Tarantino loved the original Walking Tall which is set in his home state of Tennessee.That movie just had to influence him. Just like Spielberg has the original sled from Citizen Kane above his writing desk,  I wouldn’t be surprised if Tarantino has the original 2×4 prop from Walking Tall above his writing desk.)

I’ll have to revisit the 2012 version of Walking Tall with Dwayne Johnson to see if the 2×4 (or a chunkier 4″x4″) had a character backstory.

Scott W. Smith 

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