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”During another period, [screenwriter Jim Cash] lived in Grand Rapids, Mich., working in a factory and writing all night.”
—Myrna Oliver, NY Times
(Cash was the co-screenwriter of Top Gun)

Tom Cruise and I both graduated from high school in 1980 —and that’s pretty much where the comparison stops. But I only mention that just to show how mind-boggling his rise to Hollywood success was. Just a year out of high school he had a bit part in Taps (1981), followed by a bigger role in The Outsiders, and as the main protagonist in All the Right Moves (both in 1983), and then slid into stardom with Risky Business (1983).

But wait, there’s more! Just six years out of high school he stared in Top Gun, which was not only the top office movie of 1986, but became one of those rare enduring movies that becomes part of the American fabric. (And he finished out the decade with two of the finest performances of his career with Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July. He had a full career even before his 10 year high school reunion.)

And while many of the cultural icons of 1980s have faded, crashed, or had tragic ends, here we are in 2022 with a Tom Cruise movie set to be not just the top movie of the weekend, but the top box office movie of his career. In fact, when just this Memorial Day weekend is over for Top Gun: Maverick it will be close to making what the original Top Gun made in total domestically.

I haven’t seen Top Gun (1986) since I completed my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles (or maybe even since I started this blog in 2008). But since I plan on seeing Top Gun: Maverick this today I thought it would be fun this morning to revisit the original written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., and run it through the first four four aspects of the Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles filter. (I should mention Epps met Jim Cash at Michigan St. where Cash was a professor until he died in 2000. They collaborated via modem (in the days before the internet) with Epps in L.A. and Cash was working on the Top Gun script in East Lansing, MIchigan. Unlikely places….)

CONFLICT: Top Gun is full of conflict from the opening scene. The movie came out during the Cold War ear—just a few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Political tension between the US and Russia was worse then than it even is today. When Tom Cruise was growing up, he and all his classmates (and everyone else has age) did not know a time when nuclear war with Russia wasn’t a real threat. The launch of Sputnik by Russia in 1957 was called the shot heard around the world because of what in symbolized. Though the movie nods to a potential global crisis with an unnamed enemy. (More evergreen and better attracting a worldwide box office I imagine.) Maverick’s conflicts extend to various commanders and supervisors, a love interest, and fellow top gunners, And the movie tosses in some daddy issues for Maverick as well. Conflict, conflict, conflict.

CONCEPT: The origins of Top Gun was an article about this elite jet fighter pilot training program at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego. Hollywood has along history of making movies centered around airplanes for years, including Wings which was the first best picture Oscar Award winner back in 1929. The concept was that great combination of familiar, yet fresh.

CHARACTERS: The cocky Maverick who has trouble following orders, his comic sidekick Goose, the confident Ice, Charlie (the female instructor and love interest), and the stern Viper may not be the most three dimensional characters, but it’s a action-oriented movie, not an Eugene O’Neill play. The characters have great names and are engaging to watch. But audiences really showed up for that Tom Cruise smile (and sunglasses) and the cool air footage. I’m trying to avoid reading or hearing about Top Gun: Maverick, but what I do know is the aerial footage is worth the price of admission alone.

CATALYST: The skipper around the 15 minute mark has Maverick and Goose in his office and is partly thanking them for saving two lives (and an expensive plane) on a test mission gone wrong, but to also blasts Maverick for his dangerous buzzing the tower stunt.

”Don’t screw around with me Maverick. You’re a hell of an instinctive pilot—maybe too good. I’d like to bust your butt, but I can’t. I got another problem here. I got to send someone from this squadron to Mirimar. I got to do something here I still—I still can’t believe it. I gotta give you your dream shot. I’m going to send you up against the best. You two characters are are going to top gun. For five weeks you’re going to fly against the best fighter pilots in the world. You were number two, Cougar was number one. Cougar lost it. Turned in his wings. You guys are number one. But you remember one thing, you screw up just this much [nods to his stubby cigar] you’ll be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dogshit out of Hong Kong.”

Without that scene you don’t have a movie. At least not one with Maverick and Goose going to top gun school. And in that expo dump is the catalyst/inciting incident that sets the story in motion.

For a 2022 high school graduate, parts of the original Top Gun might feel like watching a Wham! concert, but I think it holds up well. There are themes, motifs, and situations at play in Top Gun that are universal to the human spirit no matter the era. One of the things I love about movies is you can be put into a dramatic situation in space in the distant future, or be on a cattle drive in the distant past. For what it’s worth, my five month old puppy enjoyed watching Top Gun with me this morning— and I think she had a moment with Tom Cruise.

Totally unposed photo of my dog watching “Top Gun” this morning (That candle holder was part of a wine barrel that I brought back from a video shoot I did in South Africa about 15 years ago.)

P.S. Another thing that Top Gun (1986) did was change the perception of the military. Many of those raised in the ’60s and ’70s were jaded by Vietnam War. When it ended in 1975 with the fall of Saigon there was a solid decade where young people were not flocking to join the military. (Keep in mind there was a military draft in the U.S. from 1964 and 1973.) The PR problem was so bad that in general Hollywood avoided producing many military movies.

And those that did get produced did not put the military in a favorable light. Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986) come to mind. But if you ever doubt the impact movies can have, Top Gun could be case study #1. The movie changed the perception of the military and made being a jet pilot cooler than being a rock star. Enlistment exploded.

“According to the US Navy, the box office success of Top Gun saw their recruitment rates balloon by a massive 500% in the year following the original movie’s release.”
—Cathal Gunning, Screenrant

Heck, I’m still dreaming about getting on an air craft carrier just to see a plane land on a ship at sea.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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”I don’t know what lens do—don’t know what an f-stop is.”
—Producer/director/writer Judd Apatow
MasterClass

”THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD”/ DP Roger Deakins

From the above quote by Judd Apatow, you can gather that not every filmmaker is a Robert Rodriguez or a Steven Soderbergh who can not only produce, direct, and write—but also shoot and edit. Especially if you don’t have the comedic chops of Apatow, understanding lens and f-stops is an important step on your filmmaking and content creation journey. And it’s easier to learn the technical aspects at 15 or 20 years old verses when you’re 30 or 40 years old. (If for no other reasons that you have more time and less demands when you’re younger.)

Being able to shoot their own footage was an asset to writer/director Sean Baker (The Florida Project) and writer/director Lulu Wang (The Farewell) before their feature film careers took off. Baker shot EPK (electronic press kits) and Wang shot legal/medical interviews to pay the bills. Even if you never shoot your own stuff, there is a benefit to understanding the basics of cinematography. As a symphony conductor once told me, “A conductor doesn’t need to know how to play every instrument, but he [or she] needs to know what every instrument does.”

There are so many ways to learn about cinematography online these days. (And you really can do wonders with an iPhone.) Here’s a recent video from Sareesh Sudhakaran at the Wolfcrow YouTube channel that is informative on apertures.

I’ll add other videos to this post as I think will be helpful without overwhelming you. But here are four excellent videos produced by StudioBinder that cover overviews of aperture, ISO, shutter speed, and lighting.

But if you wanted to spend a little money to do a visual deep dive check out Shotdeck.

Related post: Lens, Light, Location (The Lesson That Took Took Chris McQuarrie 25 Years to Articulate)

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

Both Sides Now, written by Joni Mitchell (and performed in Emilia Jones in CODA)

One of the reasons I steer away from writing much about recent film releases is they have not marinated into the culture long enough to see if they are going to have a lasting impact. And in the case of CODA—winner of three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (Troy Kotsur)— not only have many people not seen it yet, I have talked to people who don’t even know that film exists. (Blame it on COVID.)

Confession: It took me 8 months, its recent Oscar wins, and a free temporary pass to AppleTV for me to finally watch it last night. A really enjoyable film that left me with three take aways in my first viewing.

3) It’s the first film from a streamer to win Best Picture. (Netflix’s Roma won Best Foreign film a couple years ago.) In the last chapter of my book  Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles I addressed Hollywood vs. Silicon Valley. But two years later, when the COVID dust settles, we all might realize that Silicon Valley is Hollywood. (The good thing for creators is how much the streamers are creating.)

2) The film was familiar, yet different. It was shot in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a fishing town that was prominent in the film The Perfect Storm). Hearing impairment plays a key part in the film as did the recent hit A Quiet Place, the super indie film Sound of Metal, and the 1986 movie Children of a Lesser God (where Marlee Matlin won an Oscar). It has the young person underdog reminiscent of Karate Kid. A female protagonist with rising musical talent like Perfect Pitch. The demanding musical teacher with a hint of Whiplash. A girl with dreams going to a tough audition from Flashdance (What a feeling!), a teen love story like The Edge of Seventeen… the list goes on. CODA writer/director Siân Heder (along with Tarantino and Scorsese) knows that originality is rooted in your spin on the mixtape you put together. CODA itself is a remake of the 2014 French hit film La Famille Bélier.

1) CODA also did what I believe many of the best films do—it focused on brokenness and healing of the family unit. It’s a theme that will never be out of style, because it is so key to the human experience. Is there one family in the history of civilization that can’t relate to this most basic struggle? This won’t give anything away about CODA, but there is one moment in the film where I got goosebumps and my eyes watered. (And don’t tell David Lynch, but that all happened while watching on an iPhone.) And at that emotional peak of the movie, CODA reminded me of Rain Man. And of this nugget from Rain Man screenwriter Barry Morrow that I’ve been holding on to for a few weeks:

“One of the deepest, most ancient yearnings that humans have is the unity of group. And within that the family. We all have stories here of how lives have been hurt by fractures in the family. From kids whose parents are divorced to siblings that are estranged. We hate that brokenness. So if you can do a movie—which is always about discomfort and pain—if you can tap into some really primal themes. And pay them off in a way that’s satisfying and yet not saccharine, it should resonate. Again, that’s the kismet that we tapped into [with Rain Man]. . . . This was supposed to be a slice of life. Two guys on a road for a week. Disconnected and become connected. And that disconnect is what the movie works on, always. It’s what makes it funny. It’s what makes in poignant. And when their foreheads touch at the end, that’s the connection. As subtle as it is, that should probably be the movement at which you feel the most in the movie. I’ve been in many audiences—it’s a quiet moment. And so you do hear a little sniffling. And when I first heard that, I knew that it worked.”
Barry Morrow (co-screenwriter Rain Man)
UCTV Script to Screen interview

And just like CODA, there is a large referential wake behind Rain Man. There was the 1955 film Marty and the 1968 movie Charley And the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character was actually based in part on autistic savant Bill Sackter. Barry Morrow had met Sackter in Minneapolis and became his guardian. When Morrow moved to Iowa to work at the University of Iowa he brought Sackter with him. Morrow wrote the 1983 TV movie Bill: On in Own which earned Morrow an Emmy. (That Emmy Award is on display in the University of Iowa Main Library in the Special Collections on the third floor.) 

And the documentary A Friend Indeed: The Bill Sackter Story, directed by Lane Wyrick, came out in 2008. It used much footage that Morrow shot back in the 1970s.

P.S. You may have noticed that Tom Cruise has a little film coming out next month titled Top Gun: Maverick. Of course, it’s one of the most antisipated films of the year. Back in 1986, Cruise starred in Top Gun beginning a great ten year run that in included the hit movies Rain Man, The Firm, Mission: Impossible, and Jerry Maguire. But of all of Cruise’s movies, Rain Man I the one I’ve seen the most. It’s a movie stealing role for Hoffman, but many forget Cruise’s brilliant performance in that film. For young filmmakers out there who haven’t seen Rain Man, do yourself a favor and not only watch it, but track down the DVD that has three commentaries. One with Morrow, one with co-screenwriter Ron Bass (who came on to make changes for the director), and also the commentary with the director Barry Levinson. It‘s a film course by itself. Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay at the 1989 Oscars.

Related post:
It’s the Relationships Stupid!—A Heart to Hart Talk About Movie Endings with Lindsay Doran & Moss Hart

What’s being celebrated at the ends of those movies is each other.It’s the tenderness and the kindness and the comfort of each other.”
Producer (and former president of United Artists) Lindsay Doran
2012 TED Talk, Saving the World Vs. Kissing the Girl 

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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”I think we’re actually in the heyday of [professional storytelling] right now. There is the right medium for all kinds of stories.
—Chris Moore (Co-producer on Good Will Hunting)

“You have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
—Blogger/book author/ Oscar-winning screenwriter/webshow host/Tv writer/musical writer Diablo Cody

You don’t hear the word heyday much these days. But I like that producer Chris Moore (Manchester by the Sea) used it on his Indie Film Hustle podcast interview with Alex Ferrari. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about this being the new golden era of television. But the phrase ”golden era” has a romantic feel to it. When Moore said we’re in the heyday of professional storytelling it made me pause and ponder what he meant. This is how he unpacked it on the podcast:

”Now there are way more professional ways to be a storyteller than there used to be where you can make a living. That’s the kinds of thing I did as an agent. Maybe you should do this as a novel. Or maybe this would be really cool as a play. Or maybe this is an animated piece because you can do really funny stuff with annimation that you can’t get away with on live action. . . . Think about Good Will Hunting. How would we make Good Will Hunting today? I’m not sure it would be a $25 million movie. It could be a bunch of episodes. It could be a podcast—just Ben and Matt’s characters talking about how the hell to get out of Southie. Kevin Smith could have done Clerks as a podcast and it would have been super funny. I think Kevin’s the kind of guy who would tell you, I just want to tell these great stories about these these characters and situations—and however is best to tell them, I’ll tell them. Anyway, that’s what I think’s interesting about professional storytelling right now. There’s a lot of options.”
—Chris Moore

In fact, Kevin Smith today has the Smodcast website where you’ll find multiple podcasts, info on where to find his movies, in person speaking events, and links to his Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. A few years removed from his 2018 heart attack, Smith is still hustling and still telling stories.

Moore who also produced American Pie said that today that film franchise might simply start of with a series of TikTok videos featuring the actors to gain interest and a wider audience, before it got turned into a limited series. He does point out that some of these storytelling methods are more lucrative than others, but the keep point to be creating. Here are some ways you can put your stories out into the world beyond just film and TV. Ways that could lead to bigger stuff.

Graphic Novels
Story stories
Short films
Blogs
Podcasts
Stage plays
Novels
Audio books
Web Series
YouTube
TikTok

In the last chapter of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles, I touch the importance of these alternative ways to tell stories. Ways that are especially important if you live outside New York and LA. Here are some quotes I’ve grabbed from various blogs posts I wrote going as far back as 2008.

“You need to be very ‘platform agnostic.’ You want to find an audience wherever that audience is. So think about the web, TV, and theaters. Open yourself to as many possibilities as you can imagine.
—Morgan Spurlock
Filmmaking Quote #36 (Being Platform Agnostic)

“Stop calling yourself a filmmaker. Call yourself a storyteller. Call yourself a content maker. Start looking at everything as all the different ways, all the different platforms, all the different methodologies of telling your story and getting it out of there. And don’t confine yourself to one almost archaic form. Now young storytellers will come in and say, ‘This is my series idea,’ ‘This is my long form series,’ ‘This is my episodic series,’ ‘This is my web series.’”
—Indie film producer Christine Vachon on
’Stop calling yourself a filmmaker’—Producer Christine Vachon

”There are so many places to tell stories. I want to tell cool stories and not have to ask for permission.
—Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith is Platform Agnostic

I would highly recommend people make something. If they’re living in Austin, or Iowa City, or Chicago or anywhere, and feel like you have something to say or a story to tell—we’re in an era where you can shoot something for nothing. And if you don’t believe me, go on Netflix and watch Tangerine [a film shot on a iphone that played at Sundance] and you’ll go, “Oh, that can be a movie? Holy cow. ”
—Mike Birbiglia
Waiting to Be Great

“The advice I give for filmmakers starting out is don’t wait for me. Don’t wait for the industry… It’s a mistake to wait for Hollywood to tell you you have a good idea. If you have a good idea, try to make it on your own as cheaply as possible… on your phone.”
Producer Jason Blum (Whiplash, Get Out, Paranormal Activity)
Don’t Wait for Hollywood

“People ask, ‘What’s the advice you’d give young filmmakers?’ And I always say, ‘Don’t try and compete with Hollywood. Take your lack of resources and make it work for you. Look at ClerksEl MariachiMetropolitan, even McMullenSlackers.  All of these films embraced their lack of resources and instead focused on story or style or characters, and dialogue.
—Edward Burns
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood

”Make three-minute movies, make a five- minute movies, make webisodes, because it is a maker culture now. And that’s how people get noticed and get movement, with distinct voices and things that are made and not just on the page.
—Screenwriter Clare Sera
‘Smallfoot’ and the Legend of Clare Sera

P.S. Here are a couple of my favorite scenes from Good Will Hunting written by and starring Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Close your eyes and listen to the dialogue and sound design and see if you think it would have worked as a podcast.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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Hello darkness my old friend
I’ve come to talk to you again

The Sound of Silence
Paul Simon

”As the writer, you need to burn down houses. You need to push characters out of their safe places into the big scary world — and make sure they can never get back.”
—Screenwriter John August
Burn it Down

“Sometimes your strength is a double weakness” is a saying I first heard more than three decades ago. That could be said of Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) in Nightmare Alley as well as the 2021 version of that film directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Stanton got lost in Nightmare Alley. Guillermo del Toro got lost in Nightmare Alley. And I got lost in Nightmare Alley.

Spoiler alert: This is not a lost and found story. (As a side note, I’d rather a movie be swimming around the culture for a few years before I write about it. But here we go.)

Stanton got lost in his own abilities.

Guillermo del Toro got lost at the carnival.

And I got lost in del Toro’s vision.

Now getting lost is not always a bad thing. If Stanton doesn’t get lost in Nightmare Alley there isn’t a movie. If he gets married, quits the carnival, is successful selling life insurance, buys a house in Cincinnati, and raises two above average kids, and lives a normal life there isn’t a movie. As former UCLA professor Richard Walter once wrote, “People do not go to the theater to see The Village of the Happy Nice People.

You won’t find many happy nice people in Nightmare Alley.

And if del Toro had of gotten just a little more lost at the carnival he might of had two movies instead of one. The opening carnival sequence in the first hour is its own spectacle. To borrow a question from the film, “Did I oversell it?” I think so. I think del Toro created a world he didn’t want to leave. I actually thought he or someone else could make a limited series on that world, then I realized HBO already had—Carnivale (2003—2005).

The Nightmare Alley carnival was more fantasy than Tod Browning’s 1931 classic Freaks. But these attractions have been around forever for a reason.

And an additional 20-25 minutes of the carnival to Nightmare Alley and they had feature film one in the can. Then the second film would start with the Stanton’s mentalist show in Buffalo with Molly (Rooney Mara), then jumping into Bradley Copper and Cate Blanchett sizzling on screen through to his downfall. It still would have made for an hour and a half movie. Yet, even as a single 150 minute film, I got still lost in del Toro’s vision. The film actually reminded me of how I felt after first watching Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Scorsese’s’ Raging Bull. Movies I still ponder over from time to time—though both are hard to grasp even after multiple viewings.

I bought a ticket and enjoyed the ride to Nightmare Alley. But not enough people did, and so the $60 million movie was a box office disappointment. Martin Scorsese even wrote a LA Times piece in January encouraging people to see the movie. The COVID pandemic was no doubt part of reason people didn’t show up. (And how amazing it is that a film of this scale got made during the pandemic?) But a 2 1/2 hour run time with dark themes, released at Christmas time, didn’t help. Nor did the heavy doses of exposition. Just show the magic tricks without explaining how they were done. When I did my little writing experiment of breaking down the book into a three act structure, I had the carnival sequence ending at the end of act one. That would have streamlined it down to a manageable two hour movie.

Here’s what I mean about the movie’s strength being double weakness. Nightmare Alley is a visual feast. I was lost in the wonder of it all. The set design, the cinematography, the wardrobes, the acting, and the overall production value was spellbinding. It was a delight to take it all in. The problem is I was lost in the filmmaking aspects of the movie rather than the movie itself.

But this is a screenwriting blog, so let’s talk about that aspect. I thought a nice opening scene was the way the book opened with Stanton seeing the geek—the man/beast act and wondering how you could get someone to bite the head off a live chicken or a snake. The major dramatic question being “How does one become a geek?”

I thought the best use of the first act would be showing Stanton finding his place in this world by joining the circus and moving up the ranks.He’s ambitious and resourceful, but not a bad guy. A guy who wants to make a name for himself. My arc was Act 1: Good guy, Act 2: Wrestling with good/evil, Act 3: Evil wins. The anti-hero’s journey. Del Toro opens with the the Stanton dragging a corpse and burning down a house. ”I needed a big question mark,” was what del Toro said about opening with the burning corpse scene. I guess to have the audience wondering who did he burn and why?

But I thought that burning house scene, and the continual flashbacks to it, took away from keeping the story movie forward. Plus it sets Stanton up as a bad guy at the start of the movie, so he doesn’t have much trajectory throughout the whole film.

In the book on the production (Nightmare Alley: The Rise and Fall of Stanton Carlisle) by Gina McIntyre, she writes that the novel and concept first got on del Toro’s radar back in the 1990s when he was making Cronos. So this film has been in the works for 30 years. Perhaps giving del Toro extra time to think about his vision for the film.

“The pre-production and scouting took longer than they have on most projects I’ve ever tackled: We needed to find the perfect doorway, the perfect street, the perfect street, the perfect field for every frame.”
—Guillermo del Toro

The only thing they didn’t find was the perfect script. (But how many of those have there been?) Or maybe I just yearned for that Rod Serling touch, where at the end of the film I recognized myself in Stanton Carlisle. (But how many Rod Serlings have there been?)

But I think where del Toro and Morgan exceeded the book and the 1947 movie version was the whole Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins) sequence through to the ending. The book was too convoluted and the ’47 movie too unbelievable. Cooper does a brilliant job of showing Stanton’s emotional breakdown at the end. I hope I get to see the black and white version of Nightmare Alley in a theater some time.

P.S. After I wrote this post, I looked at some reviews of the film. I think Rex Reed said what I wanted to—but he did it in just 33 words:
”It’s too long, too uneven in some places, too slow in others, and too flawed to be a masterpiece, but even with its drawbacks I could not take my eyes off the screen.”

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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We all know that it’s conflict really that makes drama happen. It’s not just a slice of life that you’re doing.”
—India-born writer/director Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding)
MasterClass, Lecture 3

Salaam Bombay!

It’s possible that I’ve written more about the importance of conflict in drama more than any other subject. It’s why I chose the first chapter of my book to be on conflict. Here are a handful of posts over the years that unpack that some more if you want to do a deep dive.

Conflict—Conflict—Conflict

The Key is Conflict (movies, TV, Docs, Podcasts, Etc.)

Protagonist = Struggle

Neil Simon on Conflict

Screenwriting’s One Unbreakable Rule

Conflict is at the root of everything from Shakespeare to Hamilton to Looney Tunes:

”Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
From Henry the IV

”There’s trouble in the air, you can smell it.”
Say No to This (from Hamilton) written by Lin-Manuel Miranda

“I like to swing upon my perch and sing a little song,
But there’s a cat that’s after me and won’t leave me alone.”
—Tweety Bird

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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For various reasons when The Right Stuff landed in movie theaters in 1984 it did not find a wide audience. But I was glad to experience it in all its glory on the big screen. I was in film school at the time and just delighted by the overall filmmaking of the movie. I was familiar the Pulitzer Prize playwright Sam Shepard who was in the early stages of being the movie star Sam Shepard when he played pilot Chuck Yeager. I still think it was one of the best matches of two larger than life characters. The following scene captures Yeager —who was the first to break the sound barrier (and who died yesterday)—and Shepard, who had a face that didn’t need any words to communicate volumes.

Of course, there is no doubt tucked in that scene Philip Kaufman’s direction and script (based on Tom Wolfe’s book), Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography, Bill Conti’s music, and a wealth of other people from production design, art direction, and editing that made that scene (and the whole movie) special.

From a screenwriting perspective, in Yeager and his life-threatening feat in 1947 you have conflict, character, emotion, and a climatic scene all rolled into one.

Here’s a little more about the real Yeager who was World War II vet from West Virginia.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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“[Screenwriter Bo Goldman told me] that while the dialogue was essential, the actors’ reactions to things were even more important. . . . Later, when I met director Blake Edwards, he said the same thing. ‘The reaction to the action is critical.’ To have a great line is nice, but to have a strong and memorable reaction is even better.”
—Writer/producer/director Garry Marshall
My Happy Days in Hollywood (written with Lori Marshall)
Pages 127-128

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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After almost 13 years of writing blogs I did my first podcast interview on Alex Ferrari’s Bulletproof Screenwriting podcast. For my first time out of the gate, overall I thought it went pretty well. Alex did a super job trying to keep in on the topic of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles. (Otherwise we could have talked about Burt Renyolds for an hour.)

Alex has been building his whole Indie Film Hustle empire for years and has a wealth of screenwriting and filmmaking podcasts, articles, interviews, and courses on production and distribution. Alex is a filmmaker (On the Corner of Ego and Desire) and author of Rise of the Filmtrepreneur: How to Turn Your Independent Film into a Profitable Business.

P.S. I actually hesitated is agreeing to do this interview because it’s a whole different game than crafting a blog post where you can weigh each word your write. You can edit your meandering when you drift off topic. But I’m glad I did it because it lets me know how to prepare for the next one I do—give shorter answers. And it fired me up to record the audio version of my book which I’m editing now. And have hopes to start a podcast in the coming months.

Scott W. Smith

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“You like race horses? I love ‘em. Beautiful, expensive racehorses. You are looking at six hundred thousand on four hoofs . . . I bet even Russian Czars never paid that kind of dough for a single horse.”
Jack Woltz (John Marley) in The Godfather
Screenplay by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola

The first film director that I think I was ever aware of was Francis Ford Coppola. I was in middle school when other students were talking about a movie featuring a scene with a severed horse’s head. Being 11-12 years old I didn’t see The Godfather in theaters in its original release—but I learned the name Francis Ford Coppola.

Everything before in my world was about actors— as in, “It’s a Paul Newman film.” When I saw Apocalypse Now (1979) in theaters just before my senior year of high school I was mesmerized. I’d just never seen anything like it. Coppola got a lot of press back then for going over budget and possibly going out of his mind. (The doc Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse is required viewing for any filmmaker.)

Then I was in film school when The Outsiders, Rumble Fish, and The Cotton Club came out—and that’s when I also got caught up on The Rain People and The Conversation— cementing him as one of my favorite directors. Plus he’d written the Oscar-winning screenplay for Patton, was a producer on American Graffiti, and an executive producer on Koyaanisqatsi so he’s always been a giant in my book.

But here’s what the five-time Oscar winning producer/director/writer has to say about his career that’s spanned seven decades:

“My father [composer Carmine Coppola] was always struggling with his career. I was said to him, ‘Are you as great a composer as Beethoven or Mozart?’ He said, ‘Well, no, I’m not.’ I said, ‘Are you the worst?’ He said, ‘No, I’m certainly not the worst. There are many worst than me.’ So I said, ‘You’re somewhere between the worst and the best, and that’s a wonderful thing.’ That’s how I feel about myself. I don’t see myself as a big deal or a big shot. Even when you hear me talk about myself in relation to other filmmakers, I’m proud that I’m one of the group of filmmakers who are important in my generation. To me, it’s not vital to be considered one the five most important; I just want to be somewhere between the best and the worst. And that’s where I am, let’s face it. Compared to the greats, I’m a second rate film director, but I’m a first-rate, second rate director.”
— Producer/writer/director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather I, II, III)
Haute Living, “Francis Ford Coppola: Protecting His Legacy During The Pandemic” by Laura Schreffler
October 15, 2020

Coppola may be the only person in the world that would call Francis Ford Coppola a second rate film director. But in a business that has no shortage of oversized egos, it’s is refreshing to hear someone so prolific speak so humbly. Same guy who bought a small vineyard in Napa Valley and hoped to make some wine for friends and family—and ended up building a wine empire with The Francis Ford Coppola Winery.

P.S. The first chapter of my book is on conflict, because conflict gets our attention. Horse’s head= conflict.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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