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One of the great joys of my decade living in Iowa was getting to know and work with artist Gary Kelley. Here he is explaining his football sized artwork at the Google data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  

And these large murals are painted in other Google data centers (the cloud) around the world.

P.S. Gary’s daughter Cydney Kelley is a writer on Days of Our Lives. She also wrote an episode of The Game

Related post:
Kelley’s Blues Concert
Post #1,500
Postcard #32 (The Planets)
The First Black Feature Filmmaker  (Oscar Micheaux stamp by Gary Kelley)

Scott W. Smith

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“The less government interferes with private pursuits, the better for general prosperity.”
Martin Van Buren
Eighth United States President (1837-1841)

Every once in a while I like to touch on 30 second storytelling and Google’s Martin Van Buren spot is brilliant and effective. A classic example of storytelling and simplicity. Pick your paradigm: Beginning, middle, end. Set-up, conflict, payoff. Catalyst, debate, fun and games, finale. Problem/solution. Crisis, climax, resolution.   They all work.

The commercial wastes no time getting to the central conflict: “It’s dress like a president day. I’m supposed to be Martin Van Buren.” That happens at the eight second mark. The mid section is spent working on a solution, and what makes the spot work is the reveal at the 24 second mark of the little girl looking remarkably like Martin Van Buren. And the topper and emotional payoff is the mom’s satisfied look in the following shot.

I don’t know who the copywriters were, but Venables Bell & Partners created the ad.

P.S. How can you not be hip with those sideburns?

Related post:
“The Dog Strikes Back”
Setups & Payoffs (Tip #57)
Insanley Great Endings
Screenwriting & Structure (Tip #5)

 

Scott W. Smith

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“When I was an executive at MGM, I was dying for that next person to come in the door and have a piece of material that I could use or purchase. Finding a quality piece is actually really hard.”
Stephanie Palmer

The past couple of days I’ve been involved in various meetings, emails, and phone calls regarding a video project featuring three former NFL players. Ever since reading Stephanie Palmer’s book Good in a Room  back in 2008, there hasn’t been a meeting I’ve attended where I haven’t been aware of her basic principles. What I like about Stephanie’s work is the cohesiveness of her message– “How to sell yourself (and your ideas) and win over any audience.” You won’t be 100% successful, but that’s a good goal.

As the former Director of Creative Affairs for MGM Stephanie not only has film development and production experience, but she’s been featured on The Today Show, NPR, the Los Angles Times, Script Magazine and spoken at Google’s San Francisco office. Earlier this year she started a blog on her website. Here are a few links that I hope you find helpful:

5 Ways To Pitch Like Ron Howard

What David Simon’s Pitch for “The Wire” Can Teach US About How to Sell An Original Idea

How Screenwriter Evan Daugherty Scored a $3.2M Payday for “Snow White and the Huntsman”

The Original Pitch for “The Break Up”

On the Good in a Room website you can also sign up for the free course 7 Days To Create A Better Pitch For Your Screenplay. Here’s an example of the course from Day 5 on writing a one-sentence pitch.

“I recommend using the following formula with five elements:
‘My story is a (genre) called (title) about (hero) who wants (goal) despite (obstacle).’
This may seem limiting, but by using these five elements in this order, when you begin testing your pitch, you’ll be able to identify which of the five elements people like or don’t like.”
Stephanie Palmer

Check out her book, blog & website if you’d like to improve being “good in a room.”

Related posts:

Learning to Be Good in a Room (part 1) — An interview I did with Stephanie back in ’08 when her book first came out.

Learning to Be Good in a Room (Part 2) 

The Inside Pitch (Insights from WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart)

Screenwriter/Salesman Pete Jones
 (A great example of being good in a room)

Scott W. Smith

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“I try to make films that move people when they are in the theater and make them think only after they leave.”
Claude Berri
Oscar-winning French filmmaker (Le poulet, Jean de Florette)

“I’ve always chosen to work on films that are more than entertainment. I believe film can also be provocative and send audiences home thinking.”
Cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, True Grit)

A few years ago I was producing a promotional video for a seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. As I was shooting b-roll footage of a professor teaching, I experienced one of those wonderful moments that happens from time to time—I learned something. And it was so simple I remembered it: “Think. Feel. Do.”

Turns out that the concept of think, feel, do is not limited to preachers explaining Biblical passages to their congregants, but is used by everyone from marketing professionals to psychologists—and since screenwriters and storytellers fall somewhere between preachers and psychologist it’s worthwhile to toss it into your tool box.

Though for screenwriters it’s best to think in terms of feel, think, do. And just when I think I’ve reinvented the wheel, a quick Google search tells me there’s already a business book titled See, Feel, Think, Do.

Let’s use the pre-Super Bowl VW commercial that went viral this week as an example. I saw the Stars Wars influenced spot called The Force when it merely had 500,000 views a couple of days ago. As of this writing it’s passed the 10 million view mark. (Though I think roughly 25,000 views of those are mine.) I love the simplicity of the spot and from Volkswagen’s perspective they want you to Feel, Think, Do.

Ideally the team behind that spot wants you to feel a connection with the little kid striving to find his superforce powers. (And they’ve spent a galactic amount of money to make sure plenty of viewers do make that connection.) You empathize with the kid’s situation. You think about all those good feelings you had for the Star Wars movies. Maybe you even remember where you were when you first heard the words, “Luke, I am your….” Maybe you identify with the situation because you are a mother or father who currently have a son or daughter running around the house in Star Wars garb. Maybe your kids are now college age and you remember when they did the same. A mix of thinking & feeling stirring all kinds of emotions in viewers.

Then comes the do part—”You know, my car is looking a little ratty.” “A new car would be nice.” “That new Passat is a sharp-looking car.” “Honey, you want to go looking at cars today?”

Think. Feel. Do./Feel. Think. Do.

That’s what people who gives sermons try to do, that’s what people who make commercials try to do, and that’s what many great films do.

I can tell you first hand, that watching Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in On the Waterfront stand up to injustice has helped me a few times to think, feel, and do in a few instances and stand up to injustices I’ve seen. (And like Malloy, I’ve got the scars to prove it.)

But I must add, that films work best when they are subversive. When they sneak up on you. When the theme grows on you long after you’ve left the theater. The biggest problem that pure propaganda filmmakers make is hitting you over the head with a message like “pay it forward,” “save the environment, “war is bad.”drugs are bad,” “have faith in God” and “wear clean underwear.” They tend not to make audiences think, feel or do—nor do they tend to be very entertaining. (Except in the case of Avatar.)

Show don’t tell. Total word count of that VW commercial…zero.

P.S. Using Darth Vader to sell cars…evil has never been so cute.

P.P.S. If you haven’t seen On the Waterfront or Jean de Florette...Netflix.

 

Scott W. Smith

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“Segar grew up in an out-of-the way place but the inspiration for his most successful graphic creations came out of that place.”
Ed Black

“I’m strong to the finich
Cause I eats me spinach
I’m Popeye the Sailor Man ”
Popeye’s theme song written and composed by Sammy Lerner


Thanks to the Google Popeye doodle I saw last night I’ve discovered one more example of a big success coming from a small place. I’m not sure if any of the decades of comic strips or the 350+ TV shows that feature Popeye explain where he was from, but Popeye’s creator had solid small town Midwest roots.

E.C. Segar was born and raised in Chester, Illinois near the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois. According to Wikipedia Segar provided music to films and vaudeville acts in the local theater and for a while was a projectionist in the days before talking pictures.

When he was 18 he signed up for a correspondence course in cartooning that cost him $20. (Keep in mind this would have been before World War 1.)  After work he would work on his courses where he said he, “lit up the oil lamps about midnight and worked on course until 3am.”

His skill and hard work took him to Chicago and New York were he succeeded creating comic strips. In the 1920s while working at the New York Journal he had an unusual way to come up with ideas. He and fellow cartoonist Walter Berndt (creator of Smitty) would finish their work in the morning and spend their afternoons fishing off a pier in New Jersey. Berndt was quoted as saying later, “We’d finish the day with a bunch of fish and about 15 or 20 ideas each.”

When Segar moved to Santa Monica in 1923 he carried on that idea fishing tradition along with his teenage assistant Bud Sagendorf. Ed Black wrote, “According to Sagendorf Seger had a rather unusual method of thinking up ideas. He’d sit in a rowboat twice or three times a week from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m off the Santa Monica breakwater, fishing and thinking. Segendorf had to accompany him to take notes by the light of a Coleman lantern.”

(That’s great imagery. If you’re stuck on a story idea you may want to give that a try.)

In 1928 Segar created Popeye in his Santa Monica studio though the inspiration appears to be a man from back in his hometown of Chester named Rocky Feigle. He was short, worked in a bar, smoked a corncob pipe and was known to use his fists a time or two. Popeye first appeared in 1929 and helped pave the way for Segar to earn $100,000 a year in the 1930s. (And Popeye not only found lasting fame, but helped promote the eating of spinach.)

Segar didn’t just create a great characters, he knew how to tell stories. But it is the Popeye the Sailor that is his lasting legacy. An odd character with a couple anchor tattoos on his forearms, one-eye,  a corncob pipe, a slight speech impediment and a desire to eat spinach out of can which gave him super human strength who has earned his place on the iconic fictional shelf with Mickey Mouse, James Bond and Scrooge.

Back in Chester, Illinois they have a six-foot, 900 pound bronze statue  of Popeye at Elzie C. Segar Memorial Park to honor their hometown boy who made good on his $20 correspondence course in cartooning. And though most people have probably never been to Chester, or even heard of it, legend has it that both literary giants Mark Twain and Charles Dickens stayed there.

As you drive around your town or city today think of the interesting characters there or that have crossed your path in the past and perhaps you’ll find your Rocky Feigle who will be the basis for your Popeye. And perhaps someday your hometown will create a bronze statue in honor of your creation.

Dream big, start small.

Bud Sagendof who took over the Popeye comic strip after Segar died had a book published in 1979 called Popeye:The First Fifty Year which you can find on Amazon.

Update: According to The Handbook of Texas Online Popeye said he was born in Victoria, Texas.  Apparently Segar was grateful to the town’s paper for being the first to run the comic strip Popeye. In 1934 anniversary issue of the Advocate Segar wrote a note to the newspaper’s editor as Popeye saying,  “Please assept me hearties bes’ wishes an’ felitcitations on account of yer paper’s 88th Anniversity….Victoria is me ol’ home town on account of tha’s where I got born’d at.”

And to add one more illustration into the persuasive means of the media, the Texas Handbook also declared that, “The spinach industry credited Popeye and Segar with the 33 percent increase in spinach consumption from 1931 to 1936, and in 1937 Crystal City, Texas, the Spinach Capital of the World, erected a statue to honor Segar and his sailor.”

Scott W. Smith

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Just a quick thank you to all the people that stopped by this blog last week and helped make it the single biggest week view-wise since I started this blog just over a year ago. Those kinds of things are always encouraging. Also, Sunday I ran into a short film director I worked with a year or so ago said she didn’t know you could win an Emmy for a blog. (Technically the category is Advanced New Media.)

But that got me wondering if “Screenwriting from Iowa” is the first screenwriting blog to win an Emmy. If you know of another let me know, because if this is the first then I’ll market that a little more. (It’s always good to be the first.) 

One of the great thing about all the social networking going on the Internet is you can watch a movie like Transsiberian (like I did over the weekend) and do a quick Google search on the writer/director (Brad Anderson) who made this amazing, fresh and original film. And within a few seconds I was directed to Anderson’s  My Space page.

There I will found several questions he’d been asked by various people online. And here was his answer to a question about starting out in the business:

“In regard to finding a good story you have to have a level of curiosity and desire to go out there and see the world—do things. Find interesting, provocative, unusual fresh kinds of stories to tell because those are the kinds of stories that get noticed and more likely get the kinds of financing you need to realize it.  This movie here, Transsiberian, evolved out of a trip I took 20 years ago, after graduating from college, on the Trans-Siberian. That trip became the seed for the script and the movie like 20-odd years later. So gathering experiences is more important to me, at least in the early stages of your career, than trying to stratagize and think of clever ways to break into the industry. Go out there see the world. Try to use your curiosity to pull in interesting ideas into your brain that are later going to translate later into movies….So my advice is find a good story and don’t be surprised if it takes you five years to get it off the ground, get the financing together to make it.”
                                                                               Brad Anderson
                                                                               On Getting Started/My Space 

Of course, I must also add that when Anderson wanted to find a naive, goofy, and square American as protagonist in Transsiberian for some reason he chose a church-going protagonist (Woody Harrelson) from Iowa, complete with a minor John Deere power mower injury. “If she likes cold, she’d like Iowa because it gets cold there.”

(Update: Turns out the co-writer of Transsiberian, Will Conroy, spent five years living in Iowa City where his father, Frank Conroy, was the director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. If you read the post The Juno-Iowa Connection you’ll see how in many ways this blog is an extension the work Frank did there. I was glad that Will contacted me in the response section as it’s part of that whole circle of life stuff)

When I started this blog it was simply because Iowa is where I live now and because it’s where screenwriter Diablo Cody went to college before writing Juno. I didn’t really know it was the center of the world.  Now I know why Obama spent so much time here in ’06-’08.

And just for the record Woody Harrelson must have been tapping into his Midwest roots for the role. In real life spent his teen years in Lebanon, Ohio (a Cincinnati & Dayton bedroom community) and was a theater & English major at Hanover College in Indiana.  He made his feature film debut in Harper Valley PTA which happened to be filmed in Lebanon.

Anderson for the record was born in Connecticut, went to Bowdoin College in Maine (where he majored in anthropology and Russian) and lived for a while in Boston. He also applied to but didn’t get into USC and NYU film schools. So he studied film in London for a year and then went off and did his own thing and has done pretty well. He’s doing his part to show a world outside NY & LA. Loved the photography from China & Russia in Transsiberian. And if nothing else get the movie just to watch Ben Kingsley.

It’s a solid movie and it must be frustrating for Anderson and Conroy to see their film get a great 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and yet only see it bring in $2 million in the box office. I hope it is one of those films that gets a following in the DVD world.

Transsiberian also took me back in memory to a documentary I shot in Samara, Russia back in ’05. If I recall correctly after 13 hours of traveling they almost didn’t let us into the country because of some mixup in visa’s.We happened to be there when Russian was celebrating it’s 60th anniversary of defeating Hilter. It’s when I realized that they had a long way to go but they were on the rise as a nation. Our translator told us that many Russians “hate Americans and want to be just like them.”

Other cultures offer so much to explore from a creative aspect. And just to bring it back home, I’m sure there are interesting things worth exploring creatively  in Moscow, Iowa (yes, there is such a place) and Moscow, Idaho.  

Nostrovi!

russiashootdsc_1597

 

Scott W. Smith

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