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Posts Tagged ‘Iowa Writers’ Workshop’

“I write everyday for at least two hours and I spend the rest of my time largely in the society of ducks.”
Novelist Flannery O’Connor (and Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA grad)
DSC_2242Sometimes it takes years—even decades— to build a name for yourself, and sometimes infamy can come from just an email that takes a second to send. I just Googled “University of Iowa” as a test, and sure enough the first result (out of 125 million) was this USA Today headline: “College teaching assistant e-mailed nude pics to class.”

First was not about the school founded in 1847, not the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, not the winning Hawkeye wrestling program, not the Princeton Review naming the University of Iowa the number one party school for 2013-14.  Not even a mention of the Iowa college student who was arrested at a football game in September with a blood-alcohol content reading of 0.341. Nope all those took a back seat to a teaching assistant who university officials said sent, “inappropriate content to her students.”

Reports are the email from the math teaching assistant stated, “Hi Class, I attach the solutions for number 76 and 78 in this email.” (New math? Nude math?) I don’t think the nude photos of the TA (you know, teaching assistant) were the solutions, but I’m sure they will provide David Letterman, Jay Leno and others at least enough material for one night. And I don’t know if the TA will become a professor, but I imagine an LA agent and realty show are already in the works.

I happened to be in the Iowa City area the last couple of days. I was doing a video shoot close to the University of Iowa yesterday and the client graciously reserved a room for me at the Coralville Marriott.  The hotel has one of the best features I’ve ever seen at a hotel. (And I’ve seen the ducks at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, and dolphins at The Kahala Hotel on Oahu.) They have a library that features only books from writers associated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

IowaWritersWorkshop

Last night I spent a little time there reading the book The Iowa Writers’ Workshop by Stephen Wilbers. The book was first published in 1980 so it doesn’t include writers from the workshop over the last three decades, but it does a super job of telling the early history of the workshop.

While I have no connection to the University of Iowa, this blog and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop do share a connection in that regionalism played a part in starting both. (And there’s a Diablo Cody connection, of course.)

“As Wallace Stegner proclaimed in an article for the Saturday Review of Literature, the regionalist were convinced that Iowa had ‘definitely come of age.’ In sum, the twentieth century was imbued with the spirit of regionalism and charged with the special energy that emanates from sense of place and pride of locale. In addition to the stimulus of the University itself, two other factors—the Midland and the tradition of the writers’ clubs—reflected and contributed to this spirit.”
Stephen Wilbers
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop began in 1936 and to date faculty and graduates affiliated with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop have won twenty-eight Pulitzer Prizes. The library at the Marriott has a special section of just those books.

What I also learned from Wilbers’ book was that fundraising and publicity for the Writers’ Workshop program took many years to establish.

P.S. Screenwriter Diablo Cody did not attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (she jokes that it’s easier to win an Oscar than to get accepted) but she attended the University of Iowa because it was known as producing writers and she wanted to be a writer. So she joins Tennessee Williams as being an accomplished writer who graduated from the University of Iowa without attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Related Posts: The Juno—Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith

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“Art Gropes. It stalks like a hunter lost in the woods, listening to itself and to everything around it, unsure of itself, waiting to pounce.”
John Gardner

I like to refer to creativity as a blender in which you pour your life experiences and talent into. Your originality comes out of this mix. One of the early longer posts I wrote touched on this, Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C). Novelist, literary critic, professor John Gardner* (Grendel, The Art of Fiction) wrote this for you to ponder:

“Original style arises out of personality and the freak accident of the artist’s particular aesthetic experience—the fortuitous combination, during a writer’s childhood of (let us say) Tolstoy, Roy Rogers, and the chimpanzee act at the St. Louis  Zoo. Only after the style has begun to assert itself does the writer’s intellect make sense of it, discover or impose some purpose and develop the style further, this time in full conscuousness of what it portends…Out of the artist’s imagination, as out of nature’s inexhaustible well, pours one thing after another. The artist composes, writes, or paints just as he dreams, seizing whatever swims close to the net. This shimmering mess of loves and hates—fishing trips taken long ago with Uncle Ralph, a 1940 green Chevrolet, a war, a vague sense of what makes a novel, a symphony, a photograph—this is the clay the artist must shape into an object worthy of our attention; that is, our tears, our laughter, our thought.”
John Gardner
On Moral Fiction

You can add John Gardner to the list of those who were a part of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He received his MA & Ph.D degrees from the University of Iowa in the late 1950s. He died in 1982 at the age of 49 from a motorcycle accident.

Scott W. Smith

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“I really do believe that chance favours a prepared mind. Wallace Stegner, who was one of my teachers when I was at Stanford, preached that writing a novel is not something that can be done in a sprint. That it’s a marathon. You have to pace yourself. He himself wrote two pages every day and gave himself a day off at Christmas. His argument was at the end of a year, no matter what, you’d got 700 pages and that there’s got to be something worth keeping.”
Scott Turow
Writer of Presumed Innocent interview with Robert McCrum

“Much of Stegner’s writing grew out of his itinerant upbringing, a self-described ‘wandering childhood’ that took him to North Dakota, Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, Utah, Nevada, and California.”
Honor Jones and Andrew Shelden
Wallace Stegner inVQR


Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972 (Angle of Repose) and has been called “The Dean of Western Writers.”  Though born on a farm in Iowa (and earned his Master’s and Doctorate degrees at the Iowa Writers Workshop) he really was a man of the country having lived in 20 different places (including Canada).

He taught at the University of Utah (where he did his undergraduate work), the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University before being the founder of the creative writing program at Stanford University. His students over the years included Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade), Ernest Gaines (A Lesson Before Dying),  Wendell Berry (The Unsettling of America), and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

Here is part of Stegner’s advice to a talented writer who had studied with him:

“I imagine you will always be pinched for money, for time, for a place to work. But I think you will do it. And believe me, it is not a new problem. You are in good company…Your touch is the uncommon touch; you will speak only to the thoughtful reader. And more times than once you will ask yourself whether such readers really exist at all and why you should go on projecting your words into silence like an old crazy actor playing the part of himself to an empty theater.”
Wallace Stegner
the Atlantic, To a Young Writer

And in case you are intimidated by Stegner’s academic pedigree, it may help you to know that Stegner spent part of his youth in an orphanage and once said that he didn’t grow up with any art, music (except for some folk music), or literature.  The only architecture around him was a grain elevator. In fact, he never saw a city of any kind until he was 12 years old. He once said, “Coming from nowhere. you have lots of places to go.”

In one talk, he also stressed the importance of having a sense of place and continuity, “You are members of a community—most of you. You are a members of a region, of a country, of a culture, of an ecology, a species, and if you find it as I do a ‘weed species,’ that isn’t any reason to belong to it less, or love it less, it’s only an excuse to mitigate its weediness.”

Robert Redford narrated the documentary Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life.

The Papers of Wallace Stegner can be found at the University of Iowa and are open for research.

*Back in the day, spending time in an orphanage didn’t always mean that your parents were dead, but perhaps they weren’t able to afford to raise and care for you properly. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’m guessing that wasn’t too uncommon throughout the depression. By the way, orphanages find their way into stories because the place is so rich to explore from a perspective of the universal themes of home and belonging. And as I’ve pointed out before, orphans make for great protagonists. (See the post Orphan Characters.)

Scott W. Smith


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“The ‘if-I-had-time’ lie is a convenient way to ignore the fact that novels require being written and that writing happens a sentence at a time. Sentences can happen in a moment. Enough stolen moments, enough stolen sentences, and a novel is born—without the luxury of time. Lawyer Scott Turow wrote his riveting novel Presumed Innocent* on his daily commuter train.”
Julia Cameron
The Right to Write
page 14

*The 1990 movie Presumed Innocent starring Harrison Ford was based on Turow’s international best-selling book with the screenplay being written by Frank Pierson and Alan J. Pakula. According to Box Office Mojo it made $221,303,188. worldwide. It’s probably worth mentioning that before Turow got on that commuter train he had graduated from not only Harvard Law School but had a Master’s in Creative Writing from Stanford University. He has written a total of eight books, has a website,  and is currently a partner at Sonnernschein Nath & Rosenthal in Chicago.

Update: Just read where Turow studied with Pulitzer-Prize winning author Wallace Stegner, the founder of the writing program at Stanford. Because I can’t seem to escape this theme, Stegner was born in Lake Mills, Iowa and educated (master’s degree, doctorate) at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. More on Turow & Stegner in coming days.

Related posts: The Breakfast Club for Writers
Filmmaking Quote of the Day #4 (Will Smith)
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (tip#2)
Screenwriting from Massachusetts
Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Scott W. Smith

 

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“I couldn’t get the book published, and I kept reckoning with myself, consulting with my soul.”
Paul Harding

“For three years, Paul Harding’s unpublished novel, Tinker, sat in a drawer. The writer, a former Boston rock drummer who grew up in Wenham, (MA) had tried selling it, but nobody was interested.”
Geoff Edgers
The Boston Globe

This week 42-year-old Paul Harding won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Tinker. It was the end of a long journey. He’s quoted in The Salem News saying, “I told myself, ‘You’re a writer who writes, and it may be that this never gets published and you teach Freshman Composition the rest of your life, but you have a perfect wife and kids, and that’s already cool.’”

The University of Iowa grad (MFA/Iowa Writers’ Workshop ) and current visiting faculty member told the Iowa City Press Citizen,”I worked on it for 5 to 6 years and actually tried to have it published, but couldn’t find an agent or a publisher. From the moment I saw one copy in between two covers, it was all gravy from there.”

Back in 1990 Harding helped formed the grunge band Cold Water Flat while a student at the University of Massachusetts. According to Sam Butterfield, the band toured throughout the Northeast and disband in 1996. Harding graduated from Iowa in 2000. (Wonder if he ever met screenwriter Diablo Cody who would have been attending Iowa at the same time. The Juno—Iowa Connection.)

Carole Goldberg, of the Hartford Courant says Tinker is: “A beautifully written meditation on life, death, the passage of time and man’s eternal attempt to harness it… one of 2009′s most intriguing debuts.”

The big contract for his debut novel? According to The Boston Globe, an initial run of 3,500 copies and a $1,000 advance.

Let’s review Harding assets before that killer book deal:

—1992 Olsmobile station wagon (good for hauling drums around)

—Unemployment checks

—Drum set in corner (leftover from his Cold Water Flat band gigs)

—A 191 page novel, unpublished & unwanted and in sitting in drawer

So since January of 2009 he’s not only had his book published, but it is currently the #11 bestseller at Amazon and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot. (And now a nice meteoric rise in book sales.)

Congrats to Harding. The Pulitzer win is actually somewhere around the 50th for someone connected to the University of Iowa.

If you want to see something really unusual for these parts, check out this freaky video shot Wednesday night here in Northeast Iowa. (And be patient because the magic doesn’t start to happen until the 29 second mark.):

Check out NPR to read an excerpt from Tinker.

Trivia: According to Wikipedia, “a cold water flat is an apartment which has no running hot water.” Would make a fine title for a novel or screenplay.

Scott W. Smith

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“My philosophy is that if you do something good, it’s got a shot. If you want to do something that’s down the middle, the line forms on the right.”
T Bone Burnett

In a Los Angeles Times article titled The true saga behind ‘Crazy Heart,’, Randy Lewis writes about the relationship between T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton who both provided original music on the film Crazy Heart.

Burnett toured with Bob Dylan in the 70s and is a 10-time Grammy winner including his work on the soundtrack for the Coen brothers film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The L.A. Times article mentions how both Burnett and Bruton spent time on the road as musicians often do. Part of what is said to give authenticity to the singer Jeff Bridges plays in Crazy Heart is the music that Bruton and Burnett bring to the soundtrack. Burnett recounts a memory from life on the road:

“I was in a motel once called, I think, the Blackhawk Inn, somewhere in Iowa, and it turned out it was the motel that Cary Grant had died in. It was like, wait a minute — Cary Grant didn’t die in this motel, there’s no possible way he ever even saw this motel. Nevertheless, apparently that’s what happened. . . .”

That did in fact happen. And that some place is in Davenport, Iowa. The Hotel Blackhawk closed in 2006 after a fire, but I have read that the hotel built in 1915 is currently being restored.  Film legend Cary Grant was far removed from his starring roles in movies like North by Northwest (1959) and Penny Serenade (1941) and Bringing Up Baby (1938) when the 82-year-old died of a heart attack in Davenport on November 29, 1986. (Though technically, according to the Quad City Times, Grant was taken from the hotel and died at St. Luke’s Hospital.)

So with John Wayne & Johnny Carson being born in Iowa and  Cary Grant & Buddy Holly dying in Iowa those are pretty good icons to have as bookends to this interesting state where seemingly nothing happens related to the entertainment industry. Mix that with the enduring love for Field of Dreams, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, screenwriter Diablo Cody going to college in Iowa City, and the fictitious Captain Kirk being from Iowa and you know why I’ve been able to write about this middle-of-nowhere place for the past two years.

Obviously, Grant’s death here left a mark on Burnett. And my guess is that experience had an impact on Crazy Heart or he wouldn’t still be talking about it. If you follow the trajectory of older (or dead) actors, musicians, writers, etc.  you usually find an arc where their popularity peaked at a certain point in time. After that peak is fertile ground to explore. There’s a great line in the movie Tender Mercies where the once popular country & western singer is asked , “Didn’t you used to be Max Sledge?”

Check out T Bone Burnett’s website and see how his creative journey has unfolded over the years. Born in St.. Louis and raised in Texas on his way to working with the likes of B.B. King, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Sam Sheperd, John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello, Tony Bennett as well as on the films Cold Mountain and Walk the Line.

“I always wanted whatever I was doing to be art, so I was always fighting for those records to measure up to a standard of how I felt when I heard The Kinks for the first time or Ray Charles for the first time. From an early age, I knew I wasn’t as good as the other things I was hearing, but I was always trying to get there. David Hidalgo [of Los Lobos] is incredibly talented, and I thought, ‘David Hidalgo can get to that point; he can be as good in his own way as Miles Davis or Ray Charles.’ So what I was willing to do was wait until the record sounded as good to me in its own way as the first time I heard ‘Lonely Avenue’ by Ray Charles. I would try to be true to that feeling — the effect that music had on me.”
T Bone Burnett
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Mix Magazine article by Blair Jackson

I’m fond of mentioning Iowa artist Grant Wood’s call for regionalism in painting. Burnett is as good as anyone touching on the grassroots of music in this country. Below is the Robert Plant & Alison Krauss version of the John Prine song Killing the Blues. Burnett produced the song on the 2009 Grammy winning album of the year, Raising Sand.

Scott W. Smith




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If you follow hurricanes at all you may know that Hurricane Bill kicked up some pretty nice waves along Florida’s east coast the past few days. Florida is not usually known for large waves. Most days the surf pales compared to the best surf spots in California & Hawaii. So one could make the mistake of thinking that small wave Florida wouldn’t produce world champion surfers.

But the pro surf version of Lance Armstrong/Michael Jordan/Tiger Woods is in fact from Florida. Kelly Slater was born in Cocoa Beach, Florida in 1972 and has won the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) World Championship a record nine times. He holds the record for being both the youngest (20) and the oldest (36) to win the title. He is also the all-time leader in career event wins. Pretty amazing stats for anyone but more amazing since he came from an area nicknamed the “Small Wave Capital of the World.”

TV buffs may recall that Cocoa Beach is the setting for the 60s classic show I Dream of Jeannie. (Though according to Wikipedia the cast and crew only visited the area twice for filming). As part of the Space Coast, Cocoa Beach is where parades were held for astronauts when they would return from the Apollo missions. (As featured in The Right Stuff.) Though only six miles long, about a mile wide, this little town of 12,000 has had its brushes with greatness. So maybe it’s a fitting place for the greatest competitive ever to be from.

And Slater is not the only surf champion from Florida. Both Lisa Andersen (Ormond Beach) and Freida Zamba (Daytona Beach) both hold four ASP titles, and C.J. Hobgood (from Melbourne/Satellite Beach, FL) won the 2001 ASP World Championship and last year’s O’Neil Cup of World Surfing. I could go on about accomplished surfers from basically a 100 mile path on the coast of Florida from Ormond Beach to Sebastian Inlet, but I think you get the point.

Having spent most of my life in Central Florida it’s an area I’m fond of as I’ve gotten to spend my share time in the water there over the years. In fact, just two weeks ago I got several hours in of bodybording and longboard surfing in New Smyrna Beach/Cape Canaveral. But the reason I think champion surfers have risen from that area is it’s a great place to get in your 10,000 hours learning the craft and there is a history of surfing there that goes back for decades. That’s a great combination. And Slater working his magic on the smaller waves everyday as a kid is actually what set him up to change the face of surfing when he had an opportunity to perform on larger waves on the world stage.

I bring that up on a blog about screenwriting because it once again shows that something great can come from outside Southern California. Looking at surfers coming from the east coast of Florida is like looking at why so many writers come from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and why world class sprinters come from Jamaica. Vision, hard work, and the right ground work years (decades?) in the making seem to be what set a part places like Iowa City, Kingston, and Cocoa Beach to produce amazing results.

Part of Cocoa Beach’s ground work was Ron DiMenna opening Ron Jon’s surf shop in 1959  in Cocoa Beach. That helped create the surf culture that is there until this day. That’s 13 years before Slater was even born. Though Ron Jon’s today resembles Walt Disney World more than traditional surf culture, I have to think that back in the day Slater’s dad bought a board or two at Ron Jon’s.  (Or at least at least a Hang Ten/Lighting Bolt/OP shirt.)

Once again in an era of digital filmmaking the doors are being blown open for filmmakers to rise up from unusual places. And if you need a little more inspiration read my post about Coppola’s “fat little girl from Ohio” comment.

Lastly, I should mention that there is another deep connection to films and surfing as the two seem to go hand in hand. From Gidget, Big Wednesday, and Warren Miller’s classic surf films, to Blue Crush, Jack Johnson’s Thicker Than Water, and  Endless Summer II (which featured Slater) there has never been a shortage of finding great footage to put on screen—finding a great script with a surf angle has been proven a little more difficult to find.

Scott W. Smith

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“Inspiration is hard work.”
                                          
W.P. Kinsella  

 

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Field of Dreams release. Since I’ve mentioned the movie and the screenwriter/director Phil Alden Robinson a time or two before I thought I’d write about it from a perspective that may be fresh for you.

The original story was a short story called Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa. It written by W.P. Kinsella who was 45 when it was published in 1980 . Kinsella was born in Canada and homeschooled. (“I’m one of these people who woke up at age five knowing how to read and write.”) He later graduated from the University of Victoria Writing Department and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Kinsella said in one interview, “Iowa gave me two years of freedom to write, and I was beginning Shoeless Joe when I received my MFA.”

Kinsella also taught at Iowa from 1976-1978. Kinsella didn’t start attending college until he was 35 years old. Before turning to college & a career writing he worked a “variety of jobs such as claims investigator, government clerk, and restaurant owner” according to an article by Alan Twigg.

After Shoeless Joe was written and published as a novel, its success allowed Kinsella to write full time. The novel was turned into The Field of Dreams movie and released on April 21, 1989. It was nominated for three Oscars including best picture and best adapted screenplay.

In 1997 Kinsella was hit by a car while walking and I’ve read that ended his writing career. 

 

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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“I finally figured out we are somewhere between the end of the line and the middle of nowhere.”
Dr. Joel Fleischman
Northern Exposure

Goethe’s final words: “More light.” Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry: “More light.” Sunlight. Torchlight. Candlight. Neon. Incandescent. Lights that banish the darkness from our caves, to illuminate our roads, the insides of our refrigerator.”

Chris in Morning
KBHR, Cicely, Alaska
Northern Exposure

When Sarah (Barracuda) Palin was chosen as John McCain’s running mate it was textbook solid screenwriting inspired. A nice twist in the story. If it were a movie and she ends up VP I’d call it Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington. Kind of a remake of the Jimmy Stewart classic.

How do you offset the first African-American presidential candidate who makes his acceptance speech before more than 80,000 people at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on 45th anniversary to the day of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech? How do you offset Obama being raised by a single mom and forgoing a Wall Street career to do social work on the south side of Chicago?

How do you take advantage of millions of women who are upset that Hillary Clinton is not the presidential or VP candidate? How does McCain avoid being seen as just rich and elitist and out of touch with the countries economic problems?

You head north…to Alaska, that’s what you do. You choose their female governor as your running mate.  A “hockey mom” with five kids (pro-family)  including one with Downs Syndrome (pro-life) , a moose hunter (NRA), whose husband is part Yup’ik Eskimo (multiethnic) and a commercial fisherman (working class) and union worker (union), whose parents were teachers (middle class), who has faith (evangelicals), who has brought reform to government there (change), who fought the “bridge to nowhere” (fiscally responsible), whose son joined the Army last year on September 11 (patriotism), and who comes from an area more than 3,500 miles from Washington D.C. (beltway outsider).

As a former broadcaster she is media savvy and can read a teleprompter. And her selection as the first VP GOP candidate came on the 88th anniversary of women being allowed to vote. And to top it off the former Miss Wasilla has the whole sexy librarian thing going on with the glasses and wearing her hair up.

I’ll leave it to others to debate whether she’s qualified for the White House, but there is no debate she has a heck of a story. And stories outside L.A. is what this blog is all about.

Is choosing Palin a Hail Mary pass by McCain? If so, he’s old enough to remember when Doug Flutie’s desperation pass beat the mighty Miami Hurricanes back in ’84. Sometimes the high risk pass works.

And for the media, picking Palin is a slice of Hollywood. A political narrative full of conflict. Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Palin’s candidacy “will be either dramatically successful or dramatically not; it won’t be something in between.”

We know screenwriter Gary Ross (Big, Seabiscuit) has written presidential speeches for the Democrats. The talent pool of Republican or conservative screenwriters is not quite as deep (99 to 1?), but I wonder what writer or filmmaker they’ve employed. (Perhaps John Milius, Clint Eastwood, Dennis Hopper or David Mamet.)

Maybe it was Hillary’s Hollywood people (Spielberg or Murphy Brown creator Diane English)  suggestion since a Republican victory is Mrs. Clinton’s only chance to make a run in ’12.

No matter the outcome of the election, from a dramatic standpoint McCain couldn’t have written a better script. Well, Palin could have been born in Cedar Falls, Iowa to an African-American mother and a Hispanic father and have captured Bigfoot last week–but let’s not get carried away.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Alaska has been at the heart of many good stories as well as being full of folklore. Say, did you hear the “Little known facts” about Palin? “The Northern Lights are really just the reflection from Sarah Palin’s eyes.” “Sarah Palin doesn’t need a gun to hunt. She has been known to throw a bullet through an adult bull elk.” (Do you know how long it took for Chuck Norris to get that kind of street cred? She did it in one day.)

On second thought, Sarah Palin appears to have more in common with Erin Brockovich than she does Jimmy Stewart. (“You may want to re-think those ties.” Erin, in the movie written by Susannah Grant.) But let’s get back to Alaska.

Stories do flow from Alaska; Jack London’s Call of the Wild, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, Never Cry Wolf, and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia written by Hilary Seltz , Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, Johnny Horton’s number one hit North to Alaska, documentaries by Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North)  and Warner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and more recently the Sean Penn movie Into the Wild from the Jon Krakauer book.

But my favorite set of stories that are Alaska-based is what I think of as one of the all-time great TV programs - Northern Exposure. (In my book it’s right up there with The Twilight Zone and Seinfeld.) Though the show was filmed in Roslyn, Washington it retains the feel of a small eccentric, creative town you’d like to think exists in Alaska. Some say it is based on the quirky little town of Talkeetna, Alaska and others say the quirky town of Ely, Minnesota, a town near the Canadian border in the Boundary Waters.

In part because of my love for the show I’ve been to  Roslyn, Talkeetna and Ely. (However, I’ve never been to Moosefest.)  I do think the show Northern Exposure in part lead me to Cedar Falls, Iowa. Growing up in Florida steeped on Jimmy Buffett’s songs about Key West, the Caribbean, and paradise mixed with a heavy dose of Walt Disney’s version of Main Street, I think I have always been looking for my own personal Margaritaville. (A place where “My old red bike gets me ’round.”)

Even if you didn’t get into Northern Exposure you’d have to give it points for originality. Where else in the history of TV have you seen two people arm wrestle over the doctrine of transubstantiation or see someone have a conversation with a human-sized dust mite? And isn’t there a little spunky Maggie O’Connell (Janie Turner) in Palin? Yes, Palin even owns a float plane. I’m sure Noexers (as fans of the show are called) have already connected John & Cindy McCain with the older/younger couple Shelly & Holling.

Is it more than a coincidence that one of the co-creators of Northern Exposure went to college just a little over an hour from Cedar Falls? John Falsey is one more MFA graduate from the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. The Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe winning producer/writer also worked on St. Elsewhere, The White Shadow and I’ll Fly Away. (I don’t know much of what he’s done in the last decade. “Where have you gone John Falsey?” Maybe he cashed in and moved to his own personal Cicely, Alaska.)

And I guess this blog is my own little version of Northern Exposures resident radio DJ Chris in the Morning (John Corbett). Trying to do my best to wax philosophically while making odd connections.

Cedar Falls is a little bigger than Cicely Alaska, but it’s got enough characteristics to feel similar and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than Key West, FL, Seal Beach, CA, or Crested Butte, CO. No oceans or mountains here (though we do have a river and killer bike trails) but we have a perfect view of the political process as I pointed out in Politics, Power & Screenwriting.

I’m sure will see plenty of Mrs. Palin which will make up for all the times I saw Obama last year. (I think the guy was stalking me.) If John McCain and Sarah Palin don’t make it to the White House I think they could have shots at a career in Hollywood. At least a reality show.

And whoever is our next president I wish they add to their packed political campaign platform a decree for films to be better. Yesterday I walked out of two movies in one day for the first time in my life. On second thought, that’s really not the government’s job–it’s yours, so get busy writing.

And just to tie this all together as we say goodbye for now you might not know that the beautiful, haunting song that was played at the end of the last episode of Northern Exposure was written and performed by Iris DeMent — a folk artist who is married to another folk artist named Greg Brown from Iowa City and where I believe they both now live.

If you’ve never heard “Our Town” or if it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, do yourself a favor and listen to the link below. The song resonates every bone of my body and I hope it hits a nerve or two for you. (And if you’ve never seen the show at all check it out because it is a fine example of great writing.)

September 4 Update: From a public speaking perspective you’d have to pull for an Obama-Palin ticket. Palin: “The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?.. Lipstick.” Great writing and great delivery. All of this reminds me of that great Jon Stewart quip at the 2008 Oscars: “Normally when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.”

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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