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“For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love.”
The Optimist’s Daughter written by Eudora Welty
(And included on Welty’s headstone in Jackson, Mississippi)

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Pulitzer Prize winning writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001) was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She earned an English degree from the University of Wisconsin, studied advertising at Columbia in New York City, before working for a radio station in Jackson and as a WPA photographer in Mississippi. Her literary career formally began in 1936 when  Death of a Traveling Salesman was published, which incase you’re wondering was written about 15 years before Arthur Miller’s landmark play Death of a Salesman. 

“He pulled the brake. But it did not hold, though he put all his strength into it. The car, tipped toward the edge, rolled a little. Without doubt, it was going over the bank. 

He got out quietly, as though some mischief had been done him and he had his dignity to remember. He lifted his bag and sample case out, set them down, and stood back and watched the car roll over the edge. He heard something – not the crash he was listening for, but a slow, unuproarious crackle. Rather distastefully he went to look over, and he saw that his car had fallen into a tangle of immense grapevines as thick as his arm, which caught it and held it, rocked it like a grotesque child in a dark cradle, and then, as he watched, concerned somehow that he was not still inside it, released it gently to the ground. ”
Eudora Welty
Death of a Traveling Salesman

More shorts stories, essays and novels followed and she was soon able to write full time. She was on staff with the New York TImes her writings led to speaking engagements at Harvard University and abroad. From 1960 until her death in 2001 she lived in Jackson, and her family home which I photographed on Monday is now known as the Eudora Welty House (virtual tour with link). The house has been called, “one of the most intact literary houses in America in terms of its authenticity. Its exterior, interior, and furnishings are as they were in 1986 when Welty made the decision to bequeath her home to the State of Mississippi: paintings, photographs, objects d’art, linens, furniture, draperies, rugs, and, above all, thousands of books in their original places. With virtually every wall lined with books, it is evident that this family of readers valued the written word.”

It is in that Tudor Revival home, across the street from Belhaven College,  is where Welty wrote The Optimist’s Daughter, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973. A friend of my who went to Belhaven in the 80s said it was not unusual to see Welty outside her home and around town.

According to the The Eudora Welty Foundation they fund “a Eudora Welty Scholar; develops teaching resources that will expand appreciation of Eudora’s writing and photography; supports study of her work; assists in preserving Eudora’s home and garden; and hosts seminars, competitions, and festivals for young writers, established authors, and the public.”

The first book I ever read of Welty’s was One Writer’s Beginning which I just learned is available in audio in Wetly’s own voice. Lastly, several of her stories were made into films and TV movies including most recently the short film The Purple Hat (2010) written and directed by Gregory Doucette.

P.S. It is not known what Jackson (if any) was the inspiration for the Johnny Cash and June Carter song Jackson, but I did find this interesting bit of info from Billy Edd Wheeler, one of the writers of Jackson who just happened to also Yale’s School of Drama as a playwriting student:

Jackson came to me when I read the script for Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (I was too broke to see the play on Broadway). You know, the way the man and woman go at each other. When I played it for Jerry, he said “Your first verses suck,” or words to that effect. “Throw them away and start the song with your last verse, ‘We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.'” When I protested to Jerry that I couldn’t start the song with the climax, he said, “Oh, yes you can.” So I rewrote the song and thanks to Jerry’s editing and help, it worked. I recorded the song on my first Kapp Records album, with Joan Sommer, an old friend from Berea, Kentucky, singing the woman’s part. Johnny Cash learned the song from that album, “A New Bag Of Songs”, produced by Jerry and Mike.
Billy Edd Wheeler (who wrote Jackson) with Jerry Leiber
Spectropop

Here’s the song Jackson recorded for The Johnny Cash Show, a program that U2’s Bono has said was an early inspiration for him:

Scott W. Smith

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The Silence of the Lambs is the most authentically terrifying movie since Psycho.
Robin Wood
Film Reference

“Do we seek out things to covet? … No. We begin by coveting what we see every day.”
Hannibal Lecter

It’s hard to believe that The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was released almost 20 years ago.  A few days ago I watched the five time Oscar-winner for the first time in at least a decade and it hasn’t lost any sparkle—or creepiness.  The movie is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Thomas Harris.  Harris’ roots are in the deep south, born in Jackson, Tennessee and raised in the small town of Rich, Mississippi. In 1988, his book The Silence of the Lambs won the Bram Stroker Award (Novel) presented by the Horror Writers Association.

So the story had a lot going for it when screenwriter Ted Tally set out to turn the 352-page novel into a 126-page screenplay. When Tally was finished he had crafted a well-tuned script and walked away win an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

“The first thing I do is break down the book scene by scene. That’s my method of working, the way I approach a screenplay adaptation. When I have all that broken down, I’ll try to establish and define the line of events; this event happens, then this event, then this and this happens, all the time trying to keep the integrity of the novel, or source material.

What’s important for me is finding what sticks out in my mind. That’s when I’ll put those scenes down on cards, one by one, just getting the story line down, concentrating on the needs of the adaptation.

Adapting The Silence of the Lambs, for example, I knew this had to be Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster’s) story. Even though the book goes inside Hannibal Lecter’s mind, inside Crawford’s (Scott Glenn’s) mind, inside Jame Gumb’s mind, the book basically follows the character of Clarice.

So, this had to be Clarice’s movie. Anything she’s not in, any scene that may be extraneous to furthering Clarice’s story, had to be cut, if possible. If it’s not cut, then it has to be kept to an absolute minimum. This story is her journey. Approaching it this way meant automatically reducing the book.

But keeping a determined focus on Clarice meant losing a lot of wonderful things that were in the book. Jack Crawford’s dying wife, for example. I bitterly tried to hang on to that in the first couple of drafts, but by the third draft I realized it wouldn’t work; so, it had to go. I had to be ruthless in terms of what I kept and what I didn’t keep.”
Screenwriter  Ted Tally
Ted Tally —On Adaptation/ Syd Field.com

Anthony Hopkins, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal, holds the record in the Best Actor category for shortest on screen time (under 17 minutes). Hopkins’ acting lesson: “How do you play Hannibal Lecter? Well just don’t move. Scare people by being still.”

Though Hopkins was an understudy to Sir Laurence Olivier at the Royal National Theater in London it may have been his unbringing that help shaped his role as Lecter. On IMDB Hopkins is quoted as saying, “My own father was a tough man. He was a pretty red hot guy but he was also cold. He was also slightly disappointed in me because I was not a good kid as a school boy, you know. But I learned from it, I liked that coldness, because it was harsh. And he taught me to be tough. So I know how to be tough. I know how to be strong. I know how to be ruthless. It’s part of my nature. I wouldn’t be an actor if I wasn’t.”

The Silence of the Lambs also won an Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Jodie Foster) making it the last film to pull off an Oscar sweep in the top five categories. The seeds of which were planted all those years ago when Thomas Harris was reading Hemingway as a youngster in the fertile literary land of the Mississippi. It probably didn’t hurt that he earned an English degree at Baylor University and worked as a crime reporter in Texas and New York.

Scott W. Smith

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“Find a strong-willed character with a nothing-will-stand-in-my-way determination to reach his or her goal confronting strong opposition, add a strong action line, keep throwing obstacles (conflicts) in his or her path, and you’re well on your way to a gripping screenplay.” — William Froug

                              

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Today marks the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. being assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  The civil rights leader and Baptist minister has left a lasting impression on the United States.

In 2006 I was doing a video shoot in Jackson, Mississippi and then had to drive to Atlanta for another shoot. When I’m on the road I try to make it as interesting as possible and I took a detour off the main highway so I could retrace the Selma to Montgomery march. (This shot was taken as I drove over the bridge in Selma, Alabama where the conflict known as Bloody Sunday occurred back in 1965.) 

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Much of that region looks similar as it did in that day. In route to Atlanta I learned that King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, had died and there would be a public viewing in Atlanta that weekend. I figured that was a more than amazing way to finish my civil rights tour and I took the photo of King’s hearse outside the State Capitol in downtown Atlanta.

Since this is a blog on screenwriting I’d like to address Martin Luther King Jr. from that perspective.

Let’s talk about the characters you chose to write about.

“Strong characters hold our interest in life and on the screen.”                           Andrew Horton, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay

It’s been said that drama favors the great saint or the great sinner.

We don’t have to go very far in theater, literature and film to see that this is true:

Hamlet
King Lear
Blanche DuBois
The Godfather
Scarlet O’Hara
James Bond
Mad Max
Lawrence of Arabia
Snow White
Norma Rae
William Wallace
Virgil Tibbs
Darth Vader
Dr. Hannibal Lecter
Bonnie & Clyde

In fact, we might as well say that history favors the great saint or great sinner:

Nero
Lincoln
Grant
Washington
Kennedy
Stalin
Elvis
Ali
Nixon
Churchill
Hitler

It’s been said that the History Channel should be called the Hitler Channel because he plays such a key role in many programs.

Certainly the words saint and sinner are religious in nature so let’s look there to see if it favors the great saint and the great sinner as far as being remembered:

Adam & Eve
Cain & Abel
Moses
King David
Christ
Mary
Paul
Judas
Gandhi
Muhammad
Buddha
St. Augustine
Martin Luther
John Calvin
Mother Theresa
Jim Jones
Satan

How memorable are the characters you have created? Do you write characters that are as fascinating to watch as animals at the zoo? “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

That’s not to say that every character you write has to be as fascinating as Gordon Gecko in Oliver Stone’s Wall St. but your protagonist and antagonist must be somebody we are interested in investing two hours of hours lives. (They could be a shark, a robot, or a tornado as well, but whatever they are make them standout.) They don’t even have to shoot the bad guy at the end. Jake LaMotta in Ragging Bull is a despicable character but man is he ever an interesting case study.  

“I’m not interested in having to root for someone; I’m trying to get some sort of understanding as to what makes people tick and what they’re about. — Joe Eszterhas, Basic Instinct

If you do write about a common person it’s best if you put them in an extraordinary situation. (Like Miss Daisy & Hoke’s relationship in Driving Miss Daisy centered around a changing world, or Cary Grant’s character in North by Northwest who must run for his life. And let’s not forget the quintessential common man Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman who is a mirror for all humanity that faces living, as Thoreau said, “lives of quite desperation.”  

The truth is it’s easier to write a strong bad guy than a strong good guy. For every Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird) there are probably three Norman Bates (Psycho). (And actors love to play a good bad guy.) And basic dramatic structure dictates that when you throw your protagonist and antagonist into the ring it should be a fair battle. 

Look at Steven Spielberg films and you’ll find a long list of really bad people and creatures. 

And here’s a secret. Many great characters are a mix of saint and sinner. Isn’t there a Jekel and Hyde in all of us? Don’t we love to go to movies and watch characters wrestle with life, with themselves? (Heck, even Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell characters are really wrestling with life.)

Showing that struggle is part of what makes your characters engaging and memorable. It gives your characters dimension.

“It’s rare that you find three-dimensional characters in a writing sample, and when you do, it’s obvious that’s a writer you want to work with.”   Paramount Story Editor 

So as you hear the stories about Martin Luther King Jr. today ask yourself what was it about this man and his work that made him memorable. What obstacles did he have to overcome? How did his character respond to the set-backs? And how in the years after his death has his work been relevant in shaping America today?

The debates I’ve heard on the radio programs have given answers all over the map. Great characters are not lukewarm.

Martin Luther King Jr., by some accounts, was like Oskar Schindler, in that he was a flawed man who left a great legacy. His dream has not been realized, but it’s a good dream.  Remember that throughout history, ideas flow from the philosophers and prophets to the masses via artists.

“Movies reflect the culture they help produce.”  William Romanowski

Photos & Text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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