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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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This blog is not really about Iowa or the Midwest. It’s focus is on screenwriting. But I do put an emphasis on Iowa and the Midwest as it is a fitting metaphor to discuss the process of growing your creative career from unlikely places. Filmmaking in general, and screenwriting specifically, are both usually thought of in terms of L.A. and New York City.

That’s because that is where the honey is stored. It’s the end of the rainbow. It’s the climax found somewhere in the third act. Perhaps it’s best to think of Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside L.A. as a good look at Act 1. The set-up of the story. How writers (and sometimes others) prepare for their moment in the spotlight. (Though I do think that new opportunities are popping all over the place outside of traditional Hollywood circles.)

Which leads me to Super Bowl XLIV. The Indianapolis Colts verses the New Orléans Saints.  The obvious Midwest angle to the 2010 game is quarterback Payton Manning and entire Indianapolis Colts team are from the Midwest. A little less know is Colts tight end Dallas Clark (who had seven catches in the game) is from Livermore, Iowa. (pop. 431 ). But those aren’t my focus.

The key three people in this year’s Super Bowl with a Midwest connection are Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Saints defensive back Tracy Porter , and the Saints coach Sean Payton.

Drew Brees— After Brees finished his high school career in Austin, Texas undefeated as starting quarterback, he chose to attend Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. I’m not sure why he ended up in Indiana, but I imagine it had something to do with him being relatively short (six-foot) and known for not having the strongest arm. But he left Purdue with several Big Ten passing records and was twice a Heisman Trophy finalist.  Two days ago he lead the Saints in their first Super Bowl victory and was named the Super Bowl MVP.

Tracy Porter–Late in the fourth quarter, with Peyton Manning appearing to lead a game tying drive, Porter intercepted Manning and ran it back for a touchdown sealing the victory for the Saints. (Just happens to be the same guy who intercepted Brett Favre in the NFC title game just a couple weeks ago that sealed that victory.) Porter played college ball at Indiana University.  How did a kid from Louisiana end up playing for a college not known as a football powerhouse? Probably because he was undersized and just started playing football in his junior year in high school. But his time in Indiana served him well. The school in Bloomington is less than an hours drive to Indianapolis. Porter said after the game, “I’ve been watching (Manning) since my time at Indiana put up points on the scoreboard.”

Sean Peyton— Payton was born in California but raised in Naperville, Illinois (just outside Chicago) and played quarterback at Naperville Central High School and Eastern Illinois University in  Charleston, IL. When his playing days were over he began assistant coaching and gained experience at various schools including Indiana State, Miami University (in Ohio), and at the University of Illinois. He eventually made his way to become an NFL head coach in 2005 with the New Orleans Saints. The team was long known as the “aints” and in the year before he took over had a record of 3-13. In his first season the Saints were 10-6 and first in the NFC South and Payton was voted NFL Coach of the Year by AP. This season the Saints finished 13-3 and are now Super Bowl champs for the first time.

So there you have it, three men originally from outside the Midwest, who were shaped by their experiences in the Midwest and who would all go on to achieved the highest level of success in the biggest game of their chosen field.

Be faithful in the little things.

Related Post: Beatles, Cody King & 10,000 Hours

Sex, Lies & Mr. Bill (Screenwriting from Louisiana)

P.S. You may never have heard of Eastern Illinois University, but it has more than one tie to the NFL as Brad Childress, head coach of Minnesota Vikings, Mike Shanahan, head coach of Washington Redskins (and who just happened to be the head coach when John Elway and the Denver Broncos won back to back Super Bowls), and Dallas Cowboy quarterback Tony Romo are all alumni of the school. Hollywood? Actor (and Juno producer) John Malkovich attended Eastern Illinois before transferring to Illinois State and going on to help found the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

Scott W. Smith

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