Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Flash of Genius’

“Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about.”
                                                                         David Bayles & Ted Orland
                                                                         Art & Fear 


Anytime you take up a new sport or hobby you often see a sudden rise in your skill level at the start. That’s when learning is fun. But sooner or later you hit a plateau. That’s when you start thinking of the next sport or hobby you’d like to take up.

This rings true for screenwriting. It’s easy to get discouraged when writing screenplays because there are so few peaks. In fact, I think writing screenplays is a lot like climbing mountains. While climbing to the top of Mt. Everest seems almost common these days the fact is there still aren’t that many people who have made it to the peak. (Less than 3,000 people have seen the view from atop Mt. Everest.)

And when you ask how many people have ever made it to the top more than once the numbers really drop off.

The real killer about climbing Mt. Everest is once you get to the top you only have 5 minutes to enjoy the view before you have to head back down due to oxygen demands. The real killer about writing a screenplay is once you reach the peak (produced and your movie finds an audience) — you may never get there again.

But a lot of people dream of climbing Mt. Everest that never step one foot on even the smallest mountain. (Kind of like, “Someday I’d like to write a screenplay.”) But there are other people who are climbing all the time and enjoying getting to the top of much smaller mountains.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming about winning an Oscar, but chip away at it page by page and script by script. Years ago a college professor showed me a picture (that I believe was in Esquire magazine) of writers standing by the amount of work they had written before they became successful. From memory it seems like the stacks for each writer were in the four to six foot range.

Meaning a lot of writing. I thought of this yesterday as I was going through my own piles of writings. But what do you do if you’re discouraged? Seems to me you have two options: quit or just keep writing.

My first screenplay was about a college walk-on football player. I was told that it was an original protagonist and a good story but football stories didn’t sell. A couple years later a film called Rudy was made about a walk-on football player and my idea wasn’t so original. (Not to mention there have been about half a billion football movies made since that time including one opening this weekend.)

What do you do? Quit or just keep writing.

Back in 90s I completed a script called First Comes Marriage about a couple that gets married just hours after meeting each other. Then they have to work out their differences. One reader told me it was the best screenplay she’d ever read. (They say Hollywood will nice you to death. The real sign if someone loves your script is if they give you a check.) Two years later a successful TV show appeared called Dharma and Greg where a couple married instantly after connecting on a first date.

I began sending my script out in 1995 and Dharma and Greg began airing in 1997. For all I know the show’s creators had been pitching that show for years — but it does make you wonder. Other than the initial concept the stories and characters were not the same and my understanding is you cannot copyright an idea only the expression of it. So what do you do? Quit or just keep writing.

Art Buchwald’s well known case (Buchwald v. Paramount) comes to mind where his treatment was declared to be the story behind what would become the Eddie Murphy film Coming to America. (According to attorney Ray Dowd, “If parties agree by contract that one is going to pay another for an idea, that contract may be enforceable.”) Buchwald did have an agreement — and money, lawyers, a track record and a lack of fear of Hollywood that prevents writers from suing.  

Buchwald had a great career as a writer. He was a long-time columnist for The Washington Post, wrote 30 books and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 Outstanding Commentary. But even though he won a breach of contract against Paramount and the case was later settled before an appeal — he died last year without a single feature film credit to his name.

On my marriage script, a friend said I should be glad because that meant I was on the right track. Somehow it didn’t make me feel better. (Honestly, I was so upset at that time when I heard the concept of the TV program that I never watched a single episode of Dharma and Greg.) But I kept writing. I’ve kept climbing smaller mountains. Writing and producing videos and commercials here and a short film there.  
 
Here’s why you shouldn’t get discouraged. There is nothing new under the sun. (Yes, I know that’s not a new thought either.) Just this year a film came out where a couple meet and hours later get married. When I saw the first promo for What Happens in Vegas I actually had new hope for my old script because I realized that the getting married without knowing each other was practically becoming a new genre. 

There is lots of room for comedy there. Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat says that Hollywood is looking for is “the same thing… only different!” When I first saw the trailer for The Earnest Gaines Story about a football player up against the odds I thought “how many times have I seen this film?” It is the same thing…only different. And I’ll go see it because I appreciate the sport genre.

And like horror or westerns or thrillers there are built in conventions that audiences are looking for. Your goal as a writer is to give that genre a fresh twist. The same thing… only different.

Also know that writing is a two way street. You may think someone is just stealing your idea (and of course, that does happened) but the chances are better you are stealing someone else’s idea. Or at least playing homage (that line between influenced and stealing) someone else’s idea.

I have a coming of age script that is my version of Stand By Me and The Wonder Years. The place, story and characters are different, but it’s in the same family. It’s set in the 70s. It’s encouraging that I’m starting to see a lot of interest in the 70s these days; There’s the TV program Life on Mars which is set in 1973, quite a few NFL players are driving 70s classic cars these day, the Greg Kinnear film Flash of Genius takes place in the 70s,– heck, I even saw 70s sitcom star Valerie Bertinelli on a magazine cover last week. And is there a day where we aren’t exposed to 70s music?

The bottom line is trends come and go. The stock market goes up and down. Your job is to just keep writing. Focus on writing a great story and the rest will take care of itself. Flash of Genius is a good example.

I doubt that film will make a ton of money, but it is a solid film (and script written by Philip Railsback) and one that I hope gets some Oscar nominations. The director, Marc Abraham, bought the rights to a story nine years ago. (That New Yorker article was written by John Seabrook.) But for whatever reason it took nine years for Abraham to bring that to the big screen. Certainly in those nine years I’m sure he had plenty of investors tell him his version of David & Golitah parallels too many other films. (And there are probably other people who had written screenplays on inventor Robert Kearns.)

So the next time you see a movie that you feel parallels the one you have spent months or years working on relax and just keep writing. But it wouldn’t hurt to read The Writer Got Screwed (But didn’t have to) by Brook A Wharton. And for more information about copyright laws visit attorney Mark Litwak’s website Entertainment Law Resources.

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“Why does New York have a monopoly on theater?”…I have no vested interest in New York, I don’t live there anymore. It’s all the same to me. But that is where the talent is collected, and if it doesn’t happen there, generally it doesn’t happen anywhere else. I wish it would happen in Ann Arbor, when you get a new theater.
Arthur Miller
February 28, 1967
The University of Michigan

Writing is core to everything we do. Yet good writing is becoming a lost art, and a lost value. I am looking forward to watching Michigan invest in what it takes to create the best writing program in the country.
Helen Zell

As I’ve said many times before Screenwriting from Iowa is not limited to screenwriting or Iowa — but it represents movies and people coming from a place beyond Los Angeles. Today we’re going to take a look at talent from another Midwest state as I turn the spotlight on Michigan.

It was no mistake that the great New York born writer Arthur Miller got his college education at the University of Michigan. Even in the 1930s UM was already know for its high literary output and in the 1920s playwright Avery Hopwood created an endowment for UM writers. Miller was an early recipient of the Avery Hopwood Award award in 1937. It was just the first step of recognition for the writer that would go on and write Death of Salesman and The Crucible as well as many other plays, screenplays, short stories and novels in a career that would span 70 years until his death in 2005.

He is considered one of the greatest American dramatists and supported the University of Michigan his entire life. Last year the Arthur Miller Theater opened on the UM campus keeping his wishes as being the only theater bearing his name. That was a tribute to the education he received in Ann Arbor.

But even before Miller became famous the University of Michigan had tradition in Hollywood. Dudley Nichols, a UM alumni  wrote the 1939 John Ford and John Wayne classic Stagecoach. The long train that followed include:
Valentine Davies (Miracle on 34th Street)
John Briley’s (Ghandi)
David Newman’s (SupermanBonnie & Clyde)
Kurt Luedtke (Absence of Malice, Out of Africa),
Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It)
Adam Herz (American Pie)
Josh Greenfield, (Harry and Tonto)
Roger Lowenstein (TV’s L.A. Law)
Judith Guest (Ordinary People)
Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Grand Canyon, Body Heat)
Laura Kaisischke (
The Life Before Her Eyes)
Jim Burnstein
(D3: The Mighty Ducks)

Burnstein who also wrote Ruffian starring Sam Shepherd has taught at the University of Michigan and gave a presentation this year titled “Wolverines in Hollywood.”

I’m not sure where this Michigan writing legacy started but chances are famed Hollywood screenwriting teacher (and Detroit native) Robert McKee does know. He also attended the University of Michigan where he earned his undergraduate, masters and Ph.D. degrees.  Studying under Kenneth Thorpe Rowe where he learned a good deal about story structure that he promotes in his famed three-day screenwriting seminar and book Story.

Rowe wrote Write that Play and also hooked former student Arthur Miller up in New York that helped Miller start his career.

And though not a writer where would Hollywood be without the talent of former UM pre-med student James Earl Jones? A big voice (“Luke, I am your father”) who was born in a small town of Arkabutla, Mississippi, raised in a couple small towns in Michigan where he overcame a stuttering problem that caused him to be a functionally mute from grade school until high school.

In an interview with Michael J. Bandler Jones mentions Donald Crouch as the teacher that helped him overcome stuttering and find his voice. “I credit him with being the father of my voice. He said, ‘You have a man’s voice now, an impressive bass, but don’t let that impress you. If you start listening to your voice, no one else will.’ It was a good lesson in general. I [try] to be devoid of self-consciousness.”

According to Wikipedia his career in theater began at the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, Michigan where he was a stage carpenter before his role in Shakespeare’s Othello. Again to quote to old expression; “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” (And no, I won’t pass up the opportunity to mention that Jones brought his booming voice to Iowa in Field of Dreams.)

And just so we don’t leave out UM rival Michigan St. — that’s where Top Gun screenwriters Jack Epps Jr. and Jim Cash first teamed up. The academy-award nominated screenwriter of Finding Neverland and 48 hr director Walter Hill also graduated from Michigan State. Peter Gent was an athlete at MSU and went on to write the novel & screenplay for North Dallas Forty which impacted me greatly when I saw it as a high school football player. Spiderman director Sam Raimi also attended the school in East Lansing. And lastly writer/director David S. Goyer (Batman Begins) is also a Spartan.

Grand Rapids is where Paul Schrader was raised and attended Calvin College to become a minister before eventually writing Taxi Driver and having a long career in Hollywood.

Flint, Michigan native and current resident of Traverse City, Michigan is Academy-Award winning filmmaker Michael Moore who has made three of the top five grossing documentaries of all time. In 2005 he started the annual Traverse City Film Festival.

Michigan native Mike Binder was the writer/director of The Upside of Anger. In a talk he gave in Ann Arbor Binder told students, “If you’re looking for respect don’t become a screenwriter.”

And batting clean-up is a writer who has been called “the Dickens of Detroit” – Elmore Leonard. His novels and short stories often find their way to the big screen with big talent: Get Shorty (John Travolta), Jackie Brown (Robert De Niro) 3:10 to Yuma (Russell Crowe), Hombre (Paul Newman), and the upcoming Killshot starring Diane Lane. He graduated from University of Detroit Jesuit High School and the University of Detroit.

Back in 2001 Leonard had an essay published in The New York Times called Writers on Writing where he offered ten rules for writing. It’s well worth a read. Though geared toward writing novels most apply to screenwriting such as rule number 9: “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”

“Oh, I love Elmore Leonard. In fact, to me True Romance is basically like an Elmore Leonard movie… I actually owe a big debt to like kind of figuring out my style from Elmore Leonard because, you know, he was the first writer I’d ever read.
Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction)
The Charlie Rose Show 1994

Leonard lives in Michigan these days, and though in his 80s has a website (www.elmoreleonard.com) complete with a blog and podcasts. From the man who inspired Tarantino, here’s Leonard’s advice on how to get an agent: “My advice is to learn how to write and the agent will find you.”

Of course, Michigan also has a long history of real life characters who were interesting enough to have movies made about their lives (Ty Cobb, Jimmy Hoffa, Eminem, and most recently the intermittent windshield wiper guy Robert Kearns).  Then there is the storytelling history through music from Michigan which is way too long to list but covers probably every form of American music; Jazz, blues, soul, gospel, rock, country, hip hop, rap, punk, techno.)

The rock and roll hall of fame has a little space taken up with artists from Michigan including Aretha Franklin, Bill Haley, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Glenn Frey, and Bob Seger.

I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to connect Michigan’s creative success to one man — Henry Ford. With his cars and factory line he brought prosperity to the area. Some of the people coming to Detroit were from the Mississippi Delta and they brought their music with them. That’s the short history of the Model T to Motown. But again you can’t ignore the part economics plays in its connection to the arts.

These days are lean times for those in Detroit. (Heck, these days they are even lean times for Toyota and Honda.) As the Michigan prophet Kid Rock sings; “Now nothing seems as strange as when leaves began to change, or how we thought those days would never end.” (All Summer Long)

One thing Michigan has recently done to rejuvenate the area economically is to pass one of the largest tax incentives for the film industry. Late this past spring I did some location scouting for Mandate Pictures for Whip It!, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut. But Iowa lost out to Michigan and I’m sure the incentives played a part. The roller derby film staring Ellen Page and Juliette Lewis began shooting in Southeast Michigan in July.

The WNEM TV station reported this on their website: In April, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation aimed at giving Michigan a bigger role in the film industry. The key bill in the package gave film studios a refundable credit of up to 42 percent on production expenses in the state. The bills also cover commercials, TV shows, documentaries, video games and other film work.

Landing the Barrymore film is a nice start out of the gate for Michigan and there is talk of three film studios being built. It would seem like a good time to be writing Michigan-centered screenplays. If you don’t have any ideas you can start here: A popular mayor in Detroit has an affair…

P.S. If you are interesting in shooting in Michigan or in learning more about their incentives contact Janet Lockwood at the Film in Michigan office.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: