Posts Tagged ‘Gran Torino’

(Part 3—Interview with Richard Walter, author of Essentials of Screenwriting,)

SS: A while back I discovered that the Stanley Kowalski character from A Streetcar Named Desire was based on a person that Tennessee Williams had worked with in a factory.  Over and over again I seem to discover more proof, that as you say, “the day job is the writer’s friend.”

Richard Walter: That’s a perfect example. Your day job keeps you in touch with the source of your writing which is the humanity around you.  The writer’s dream is that you’re so self-sufficient you can just be in a cabin in the woods or a cottage at the beach—well,  when I have too much time on my hand I’ll call for a ski report, even in August,  just to avoid what I’m supposed to be working on.

Your day job is your friend. The writer’s day job is the friend of the writer. It keeps him solvent  and sane, which are two closely related enterprises.

Screenwriter Nick Schenk based characters in his script Gran Torino on people he had worked with in various places in the Minneapolis area and had met in bars. Anyone else happen to notice that the Clint Eastwood character is also named Kowalski? Perhaps influenced by Tennessee Williams in more than one way.

Related post:

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Screenwriting Quote #10 (Nick Schenk)

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“The fact is, when I wrote Juno—and I think this is part of its charm and appeal—I didn’t know how to write a movie.”
Diablo Cody

Today marks the two and a half-year anniversary of starting this blog— Screenwriting from Iowa. A blog that got its start after seeing the movie Juno and reading the articles about screenwriter and University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody who jump started her career by blogging. Two and a half years ago blogging was still pretty much a mystery to the masses. Just put your stuff out there and see what happens was Cody’s encouragement to anyone who would listen.

She walked away with an Oscar in 2008 and later that year I won a Regional Emmy in Advanced Media for Screenwriting from Iowa. (Juno Has Another Baby.) It was all the sweeter that I received the Emmy in Minneapolis where Cody happened to write Juno.

My goal with this blog from the start has been to encourage and inspire writers and filmmakers around the country to hone their craft as they pursue writing for Hollywood, ultra low-budget filmmaking, or something in between. Along the way I’ve also shown writers in Los Angeles who write stories that take place far from the shadow of the Hollywood sign. (Usually, because they came from outside L.A. originally, or they are adapting a novelist who set a story in their neck of the woods.)

Cody was not the first writer outside L.A. to breakthrough, nor will she be the last. But I believe she is the poster child for screenwriters originally from outside L.A. who desire to write something so original that it leap frog’s the zillions of other more experienced screenwriters. Really, how many screenwriters does the public know by name?

That doesn’t mean that she is loved and adored by everyone. I’m sure she even understands some of the Cody backlash, because how many people walk away with an Oscar on a first script that they were just flirting around writing?

“I think I went into (writing Juno) as an experiment; I didn’t really have a whole lot invested in it. It was more something I just wanted to try. I had no idea throughout the whole process that this would ever wind up being a produced screenplay or that this would ever end up being cast with these amazing actors. There was absolutely no pressure on me because I was just sitting in Minnesota writing for my own edification. So I think that was freeing in a lot of ways.”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

That has to make all of those screenwriting gurus cringe. And tick off a few writers who have been at it five, 10, 20 years. And if that doesn’t, this will:

“I guess ignorance is bliss is the best way of putting it. [laughs] The only thing I did was I went to Barnes & Noble and bought the shooting scripts for a couple of movies that I liked so I could see how they looked on the page and that gave me a little structural guidance. but that was all I did. ”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

But what about all those screenwriting classes and workshops you’re supposed to take and all those books on screenwriting you’re supposed to read, on top of the years of writing screenplays? Nah, remember Cody was just flirting with screenwriting. Juno was her first attempt and she cranked it out in six weeks at a Starbucks inside a Target store in the Minneapolis suburb of Crystal. Was it a flawless, script? Perfectly tuned like the screenwriting gurus tell you it has to be? Not according to Cody.

“When we sent that screenplay out it was riddled with typos and formatting errors because I had no idea what I was doing. [laughs] My manager was so stunned that I had turned out something vaguely coherent that he just said, ‘Let’s just throw it out there and see if anybody likes it.’ We didn’t really obsess; I think it was just a case of expectations being so low that there was not a lot of polishing and spit-shinning going on.”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

It would be easy to just say Cody got lucky. That would be a mistake. How did she get a manager in the first place? Because her manager-to-be (Mason Novick) came across her blog and saw talent and originality. Perhaps a freshness that’s not easy to find in L.A. when everyone is going to the same screenwriting workshops, reading the same screenwriting books, going to the same screenwriting expos, and hanging out at the same L.A. restaurants or sitting on the same L.A. freeway.

Thanks in part to the plethora of new books and seminars on screenwriting, a new phenomenon is taking over Hollywood: Major scripts are skillfully, seductively shaped, yet they are soulless. They tend to be shiny but superficial.”
Richard Walter
UCLA Screenwriting Professor

Part of what sets Cody apart is, to use Colin Covert’s phrase, she is “scary-smart.” She had 12 years of Catholic school, was raised in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Media Studies from the University of Iowa. While not in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate program, that was part of what attracted her to Iowa. While she had never written a screenplay before Juno, she thought of herself as a writer and had been writing on a regular basis (poems, short stories, etc.) for 15 years before she turned her hand to screenwriting. (Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours)

And I love the fact that not three miles from where Cody wrote Juno is a Minneapolis bar called Grumpy’s where screenwriter Nick Schenk wrote much of Gran Torino that in 2009 would become Clint Eastwood’s highest grossing film that he’s ever starred in. (Screenwriting Postcard from Minneapolis.) If Cody and Schenk don’t inspire you nothing will.

“Aspiring screenwriters always ask what’s the best way to break into the Hollywood? I say move to Minnesota.”
Writer Ken Levine (Frasier, MASH, Cheers)
How to sell a screenplay by drinking in a bar

Thanks again to Ms. Cody for the nudge to jump into the blogging world. And thanks to everyone for stopping by to read what I post, because without readers it would be hard to have written the 600+ posts I’ve written so far.

P.S. In yesterday’s post I mentioned that I’d explain why Clark Gable would be attracted to Diablo Cody and here’s my reasoning. A Time magazine article said, “Gable liked his women to be both sacred and profane.” It doesn’t take much reading about Cody to realize she is both scared and profane. While the profane aspects get more press, Cody’s sacred side is more fascinating to me. And it certainly doesn’t hurt her originality.

Read her 2005 post Finding My Religion to see a theological side to Cody that probably can only be matched in Hollywood by the Calvinist-raised Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver). One thing Cody says she’s never flirted with is atheism. Here’s a sample of her pre-Juno writing;

“I’ve had my share of core-rattling Touched By an Angel moments–brief instances in which God seemed to be standing right beside me, tousling my overprocessed hair like a kind scoutmaster–but most of the spiritual epiphanies I’ve had in my life were far earthier, borne of personal reflection, diverging beliefs, and the admission that I can’t ever fully grasp the sacred.”

Related Post: The Juno-Iowa Connection
Juno Vs. Walt
The Oscars Minnesota Style
The Fox, the Farm, & the Fempire
Life Beyond L.A. (The first blog on January 22, 2008)

Update June 23, 2010: Here is what Diablo Cody (@diablocody) wrote on Twitter: “@scottwsmith_com Thank you for writing that kind and lovely piece. I truly appreciate it.” Yeah, that’s a good way to start your day.

Scott W. Smith

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Then smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay
Bruce Springsteen/Youngstown

Do you have an idea bank? A file or notebook full of articles and ideas that you’d like to explore and develop further? I have several notebooks and one of them I stumbled upon yesterday happens to tie in directly with the last couple posts on Youngstown, Ohio.

It was an article on a guy named Reece.  He’s an Ohio legend. He rushed for over 4,000 yards and scored 52 touchdowns playing high school football. His senior year he was named Ohio’s Mr. Football and USA Today’s national offensive player of the year.

He received a scholarship to Ohio St. University where he helped the team to an undefeated season and scored the winning touchdown in a national championship game to give Ohio State its first title in 35 years.

Reece gave a little pride to a part of the Rust Belt that has struggled for years. According to Nancy Armour in an AP article back in ’06 Reece, “grew up in gritty Youngstown, in a neighborhood on the hard and unforgiving south side. The steel mills and factories that once provided jobs for generations of families are long gone, and little good has replaced them.”

The area sounded like a lot of inner cities in the United States. By the time Reece graduated from high school he had already been to 10 funerals of his classmates. There are reports that he avoid the gangs, didn’t go to parties, and didn’t drink or do drugs. He had a gift and he was protecting it from the elements of the streets.

But Reece had no sooner finished celebrating being part of a national championship team when he fell off the mountaintop. Reece dreamed of playing in the NFL and at one time it looked like a sure bet, but as of this writing he sits in a prison in Ohio for a string of crimes.

It’s a familiar story. From King David, to Macbeth, to Bernie Madoff the story looks the same. The rise and fall of the powerful never fails to grab our imaginations.

If the name Reece doesn’t ring a bell maybe his given name does—Maurice Clarett.

The best thing about Clarett’s story is he’s still young.  He’s working on his college degree in prison. He’s only 26 so the story hasn’t ended yet. I’m pulling for him because I love stories of redemption. When I look at my favorite films the majority have redemptive themes.

In fact, Clarett is imprisoned in Toledo, Ohio just about 100 miles away from the Mansfield, Ohio prison used in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

And I also have a sentimental tie-in to Clarett in that my mom and dad met at Ohio State, and I have an uncle who played football there back in the day. I grew up watching Woody Hayes coached teams. And I have a soft spot in my heart for Youngstown because it’s where my father grew-up.

I want to see some films set in Youngstown.  From the historic rise of the steel mills to their bitter closing, to the rebuilding process and the thriving arts community, there are stories to be told from there. Any town that’s lived through an unemployment rate of almost 25% has learned lessons that could help the rest of America at this time.

Any town that has had the influence of English, German, Irish, Scottish, Welch, Polish, Italian, Hungarians, etc. has to have some gripping stories. I’ve read that Youngstown was called the “melting pot that never melted,” and that it was common for steel mills to be divided into ethnic groups. There are stories to tell.

Youngstown is a fascinating town that at one time or another was known for pawnshops, a mafia presence, and a breeding ground for some of the greatest coaches in college football. (Florida’s Urban Myers, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, and OSU’s Jim Tressel are just a few from in and around the area.)  It’s an area surrounded by beautiful gentle rolling hills that at one time in the 90s was called the “murder capital of America” with the highest per capita rate in the country.

Conflict is one of the main ingredients of drama and Youngstown is no stranger to conflict.

My grandfather earned a Zippo lighter for spending 30 years working at Youngstown Sheet and Tube before he died of a heart attack. I’m sure there are a lot of Zippo lighters floating around Youngstown. What I’ve never seen is a movie that captures that era.

So the time is ripe for a son of a son of a steelworker (or a daughter) to rise up and write some screenplays and make some documentaries on the area. Watch Gran Tornio (about Michigan in transition) and Country (about the farm crisis here in Iowa in the 80s) and start adding notes into your idea bank.

That’s what regional screenwriting is all about and there is still some magic to tap into down by Yellow Creek…there in Youngstown.

Clarett’s a WordPress blogger whose account from prison is called The Mind of Maurice Clarett (though it’s been a few months since his last post).  Reece, I hope you write your own story and that it has a happy ending.

Scott W. Smith

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Long before Diablo Cody wrote Juno in a Starbucks in a Minneapolis suburb, and before Nick Schenk wrote Gran Torino at Gumpy’s Bar in Minneapolis, another screenwriter from Minnesota had jumped into the scene with his first script — Grumpy Old Men.

Screenwriter Mark Steven Johnson is another example of talent coming from a small town in the Midwest. He was born in 1964 in Hasting, Minnesota which is just outside the metropolitan Minneapolis area. He went to school for a year at Winona State University which is located in the southeast Minnesota town of Winona. 

Johnson transferred to Cal State Long Beach and then got his break while working as a secretary in the entertainment industry. He was 25 years old when he sold Grumpy Old Men. The film got made in 1993 with an terrific cast that included Jack Lemmon. Walter Matthau, Ann-Margret, Burgress Meredith, Daryl Hannah, Kevin Pollack, Ossie Davis and Buck Henry. Not a bad line-up for your debut film.

The opening shot of Grumpy Old Men is of the train station at Wabasha which is a small town on the Mississippi River between Hastings (where Johnson was born) and Winona where he went to school. Though they shot the film in many locations in Minnesota, I’m not even sure they actually shot any footage any in Wabasha. But the story takes place in Wabasha. (And the movie plays everyday at Slippery’s Bar in Wabasha.) 

I’ve read that Johnson based the story on his grandfather who lived in Wabasha. And I doubt it was the first film that featured ice fishing, but it’s probably the most popular film to feature ice fishing. The film had a slow start at the box office but gained a solid following and ended up making $77 million and opened the door for the sequel which came out in 1995 and made $71 million.

No one would accuse Grumpy Old Men of being high concept. A couple old men in a film that would have to be shot in Minnesota during wintertime probably didn’t get studios excited or make film financiers jump up and down. More than one film school screenwriter teacher would probably have read the script and said, “Nice try, now work on something more commercial. Something for a younger audience that has a chance to actually get made.”

But Johnson wrote the script and it eventually made it’s way into the right hands, got made, and found an audience. And it launched Johnson’s screenwriting and directing career to boot.


Scott W. Smith

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“O muses, o high genius, now assist me!”
The Inferno

Stephen King says his muse is a working class guy down in the basement chomping on a cigar. I think his muse is related to screenwriter Nick Schenk’s. When his day job was over, Schenk wrote much of Gran Torino while sitting at Grumpy’s Bar in northeast Minneapolis. He told Colin Covert of Star Tribune, “Loading trucks every day, your back was tired but your mind was fresh…So I’d just roll into Grumpy’s, where my friend was the bartender, and write the stuff longhand on a pad of paper.”

I stopped in Grumpy’s Bar  yesterday late afternoon and was told that Schenk is considered family, though he doesn’t come in as much since the success of the movie Gran Torino based on his screenplay. It’s opened up writing gigs for him in L.A. where he now lives.

Grumpy’s is the kind of place that you could see Clint Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski walking into and ordering a Pabst Blue Ribbon. If you’re looking for original stories and original characters look for them in the places you work and hangout. (Tennessee Williams based Stanley Kowalski on a fellow he worked with in a factory in St. Louis. Kowlaski…coincidence?) According to the owner of Grumpy’s, Schenk is a talented writer who has been at it a long time, but he also has a great ear for dialogue. And much of Eastwood’s character flowed from the banter that was kicked around that corner bar.

Though they shot Gran Torino in Michigan (thanks to their film incentives) the area around Grumpy’s is very similar to Walt’s neighborhood in the movie. The only beef with the movie from the bartender I talked to at Grumpy’s is that they didn’t shoot the film in Minneapolis.

Since I’ve written about Diablo Cody writing much of Juno in a Target in the north suburbs of Minneapolis I thought you’d be interested in knowing that these two locations are probably less than 3 miles form each other. That’s around $300 million dollars of box office success written from the same basic area far from L.A. and far from that perfect little cabin in the woods everyone dreams about writing the perfect novel or screenplay.

I don’t know if Schenk and Cody have crossed paths in L.A., but I’d like to at least think they’ve met back in Minneapolis at that kitschy Psycho Suzi’s Motor Lounge and celebrated their unusual journeys with a Tiki drink.

If you haven’t hired a working class muse maybe you should give one a call.

Related post: Juno vs. Walt.

words & photo copyright  Scott. W. Smith

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It’s not every day when you get the chance to rewrite a major Hollywood screenwriter — so I’ll try to tread lightly. Recently screenwriter John August posted an impromptu Q&A video on his website. Here’s one of his exchanges:

“Stranger than Fiction writes in to ask, ‘As a married mother of three whose husband is very established and has an immovable career in the middle of nowhere I have no chance of ever move to Cali –ever, ever ever.  Am I wasting all my spare time writing? Do I ever have a prayer of having a screenwriting career from –dare I say –Utah?’ 

Screenwriting is probably not your best bet. Honestly, it’s very hard to have a career from Utah because so much of the job of screenwriting isn’t just the pushing 12-point Courier font around on the page.  It’s all of the meetings and all of the dealings with people who are making films. That’s really rough to do from Utah. Fiction is a much better choice and people can write books anywhere. You can write the next Twilight from Utah.  So I’d say look for some other form of writing you like because it’s going to work a lot better for you in Utah.”

Here is my rewrite for John (written from John’s perspective);

Utah, huh? That’s a great state full of natural beauty like Arches National Park.  They have the wonderful Utah Shakespeare Festival in St. George complete with a close replica of the Globe Theatre (where Shakespeare’s play were originally performed). And of course, there is that place up in the mountains where Robert Redford established that little film festival called Sundance where every year in the middle of winter they somehow attract some of Hollywood’s biggest names. (That would be a good place to bump into film people in Utah.)

You didn’t exactly say where in the middle-of-nowhere Utah you were from but let me say that as a Hollywood A-List screenwriter myself that having a screenwriting career is hard even if you live in Los Angeles. Even though I did my undergraduate work at that fine school in Iowa, Drake University, and got an MFA from USC film school and have written hit movies such as Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels; Full Throttle and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and some other hits I’ve been an uncredited writer on) I still find it a difficult business.

Heck, I stuck my neck out a couple years ago and wrote and directed The Nines which only made $63,000. at the box office. (Yes, $63,000, not $63 million.) So it’s tough for anyone to have a Hollywood career, not to mention being a mom stuck in Utah. Having a screenwriting career in Hollywood is on par with playing basketball in the NBA. The list is actually pretty small.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t pursue screenwriting. If that’s your passion, then by all means write away. But pursuing a Hollywood screenwriting career may not be the best fit for you.  There are other options. Since your husband is “very established” as you mentioned perhaps you two can put up the money to have one of your screenplays made into a film. Perhaps start with a short film.

Let me tell you about a young fellow and his wife who did just that a few years ago. First the young man shot a short film in two days while a student at BYU in Utah. That nine -minute 16mm black and white film (Peluca) was made for $500. and shown at Sundance in 2003 and was so well received that it helped him raise $400,000. to make a feature. The young man and his wife wrote the feature script and hired some local actors and shot most of the film in Preston, Idaho — a middle-of-nowhere town on the Idaho-Utah border.

That little 97-minute film actually made it to the 2004 Sundance Film Festival where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Award.  (That alone made it a wild success.) But it found a distributor and not only got released but found an audience to the tune of $46 million dollars. You may have heard of the film that Jered & Jerusha Hess made — Napoleon Dynamite.

Let me also point you to a website that I think is very helpful to writers living outside L.A. —Screenwriting from Iowa. The guy who writes it lives in the middle-of-nowhere Iowa but he seems pretty plugged in. He actually posts everyday (apparently there is no traffic in Iowa) and some of it you may find inspirational like this famous screenwriter quote from a post called Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl from Ohio

 “If you write a script anywhere and send it to an agent in Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland or wherever…and if that agent sends it to an agent in Hollywood who loves it…you can sell your script. You don’t need to have any connections, you don’t need to have an agent, you don’t need to live in L.A. All you have to do is send your finished script to an agent anywhere. That agent will know another agent in Hollywood and you’ll be in business.”
                                                                               Joe Eszterhas

Best wishes in your writing, Stranger than Fiction.

Lots of Big Love — John

* Back to me as Scott W. Smith*

In closing, let me say that re-writing a Hollywood screenwriter is not as exciting as it sounds and the pay is terrible. But I hope this answer finds its way to Stranger than Fiction in Utah. And that it is helpful. John’s probably correct that to have a lasting career in Hollywood it’s best to live in L.A., but it’s important to also point out that in recent years some Minneapolis screenwriters have launched careers while living and writing scripts in the Twin Cities. And both films each made over $100 million at the box office. So Diablo Cody (Juno) and Nick Schenk & Dave Johannson (Gran Torino) prove a career can at least be started outside L.A. 

And John is also correct that you can write novels from anywhere and when I last heard there were over 500,000 book titles published last year. As opposed to what, maybe 200 Hollywood films? Stay in Utah (or wherever you live outside L.A.), enjoy your family, and keep writing. But Don’t Waste Your Life just writing screenplays.

Make that little $500. film because you never know where it will lead you.


Scott W. Smith

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“Aspiring screenwriters always ask what’s the best way to break into the Hollywood? I say move to Minnesota.”
                                    Ken Levine 
                                    Emmy-winning TV writer (Frasier, MASH, Cheers)
                                    How to Sell a screenplay by drinking in a bar 


Friday I had a meeting in Minneapolis and it’s true there are things the big city has that we don’t have here in Cedar Falls…traffic, difficulty finding a parking spot, and two kids were shot standing on a street corner. Thankfully, the shooting injuries were not life-threatening. The shooting took place near a park where 30 kids were playing. Those kinds of incidents always remind me of Danny Glover’s line in the movie Grand Canyon, “That’s not the way the world is supposed to be.” 

While also in the Twin Cities I noticed that Gran Torino (written by Minnesotan Nick Schenkwas still in the theaters which means it’s been a long run for the movie that came out in December. So I looked it up and saw that it has made $142 million (domestic) and then I compared it to Juno which I found out made a total of $143 million (domestic) last year which means Gran Torino starring Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski will overtake Juno this weekend or next. Though when you include the worldwide gross, Juno still has a commanding $52 million lead.

How does  Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody  match-up against Schenk? First she’s a Chicago Bear and he’s a Minnesota Viking fan so he has a slight edge there. Schenk’s also got a few pounds on her, and he did write the highest grossing movie in Eastwood’s over four decade Hollywood career. But she’s more famous than some movie stars, is working with Steven Spielberg, and has an Oscar. So for now she has the upper hand. Schenk has moved to L.A. but when recently asked by Steve March how Hollywood had he gone Schenk responded:

“Uh, none. I don’t know anybody. My friend called me up the other day and  asked me if my life is like Entourage now. And I’m sittin’ there waiting for my Tomestone pizza to get done in my pizza oven that I dragged from Minnesota–you know, the kind that they have in the bars?”

Somehow, since both writers aren’t that far removed from quitting their day jobs (or night jobs) back in the Minneapolis area I don’t think either are complaining. (And though Schenk’s writing partner—Dave Johannson— on the story for Gran Torino still has his day job in Minnesota selling gas furnaces, he’s probably not complaining either since they sell a lot of furnaces up this way and he probably makes more than the average WGA screenwriter. And dropping you had part in an Eastwood movie has to help sales.)

Still it’s pretty amazing that two screenwriters have emerged from the same area in fly-over county and have had such box-office and critical success. 

Update: It’s official at 8:19 PM I checked with boxofficemojo.com and Gran Torino has passed Juno at the domestic box office this weekend with a total of  143,824,000 verses Juno’s $143,495,265. Congrats to Schenk, Johannson and Eastwood.


Related post: Q & A with Movie Critic Colin Covert
                   Screenwriting Quote of the Day # 10 (Colin Covert)
                   Screenwriting Quote of the Day #1 (Diablo Cody)
                   The Oscars Minnesota-Style

Scott W. Smith

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