Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘John Steinbeck’

“During the 1920s, at the height of his fame and literary power, Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was more than a bestselling author. He was a troublemaker, a disturber of the peace whose novels were hotly discussed as social criticism more than literature.”
                                    
Morris Dickstein 

Writers are curious folks. They explore the side roads of life physically, mentally and spiritually. Maybe no more than other people at the start, but after they’ve turned over a rock they tend to ponder what they find longer than most and then write down what they see. And what they write often makes the rest of us take a second look at what they’ve observed. 

And if the writer has done their job well it makes us curious as what inspired the writer in the first place. Over the years I’ve found myself in little corners of the country trying to get a glimpse what may have inspired people who have inspired me; Hemingway’s house in Key West, Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s house in rural Cross Creek, Florida and Walden Pond where Thoreau lived for a spell.

Apparently John Steinbeck did the same thing. He writes in Travels with Charley about going to Sauk Centre, Minnesota which is now the proud birthplace Nobel-Prize winning novelist Sinclair Lewis. Though they weren’t always proud of their native son who brought an x-ray to the town with his writings and examined the lives they were living. Steinbeck who became friends with Lewis observed how Sauk Centre embraced Lewis after he died;

I had read Main St. when I was in high school, and I remember the violent hatred it aroused in the countryside of his nativity.
     Did he go back?
    Just went through now and again. The only good writer was a dead writer. Then he couldn’t surprise anyone any more, couldn’t hurt anyone any more. And the last time I saw him he seemed to have shriveled even more. He said, “I’m cold. I seem to be always cold. I’m going to Italy.”
     And he did, and he died there, and I don’t know whether or not it’s true but I’ve heard he died alone. And now he’s good for the town. Brings in some tourists. He’s a good writer now.

Main Street was made into a movie in 1923 and in total there have been more than 30 of Lewis’ stories that have become movies or TV programs. The most lasting of his stories made into movies seems to be Elmer Gantry. (The book was published in 1927 and caused quite a stir and was even banned in certain parts of the country.) But the 1960 film about a phony preacher would be a cliche if written today. 

Certainly fallen Catholic and Protestant leaders haven’t helped their cause in the last 20 years, but when’s the last time there was a positive portrayal of a minister, pastor, or priest in a major Hollywood movie? Maybe On the Waterfront in 1954? 

Related post: Screenwriting Quote of the Day #18 (Sinclair Lewis)

 

Scott W. Smith 

Read Full Post »

Though writer John Steinbeck has been dead for more than 40 years he’s been in the news a few times this year. Earlier in the year producer Brian Glazer announced he was going to remake East of Eden, last month the DVD was release of the six-hour production of East of Eden that first aired on ABC back in 1981 and starred an outstanding cast including Jane Seymour (in which she has said was “the best role of my career”), and also last month one of the 25 DVD movies President Obama gave UK Prime Minster Gordon Brown was Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  

More than 15 of his stories have found their way to film and TV screens including Of Mice and Men back in 1939 and the quirky Cannery Row with Nick Nolte and Debra Winger. (Did you know that Hitchcock’s Lifeboat was based on a Steinbeck story? And that it was one of his three Oscar nominations?)

One of my favorite books is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, In Search of America. I was reading it again yesterday and stumbled upon this little gem:

“I have never passed an unshaded window without looking in, have never closed my ears to a conversation that was none of my business. I can justify or even dignify this by processing that in my trade I must know about people, but I suspect that I am simply curious.”
                                                                    John Steinbeck
                                                                    Travels with Charley 

But you probably want a quote from Steinbeck more in line with writing so here that is: “The profession of book writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”

 


 

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Since my last post had more views in a five day period than anything I’ve posted I thought (like a good Hollywood producer) that I would follow it up with a sequel. But this time instead of limiting myself to more kinda, sorta random quotes on writing and life from mostly screenwriters I’ll open up the floor for others.

“I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird.”
                                                                                 Harper Lee
                                                                                To Kill A Mockingbird 

“The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”
                                                                                Arthur Miller 

“The awful thing about the first sentence of any book is that as soon as you’ve written it you realize this piece of work is not going to be the great thing that you envision. It can’t be.”
                                                                                Tom Wolfe 
“A writer’s courage can easily fail him.”
                                                                                E.B. White 

“I have so many demons and voices telling me what a fraud I am and how my meager talent will be uncovered.” 
                                                                                Scott Frank 
                                                                                Oscar nominated screenwriter
                                                                                Out of Sight, Minority Report,
                                                                                Get Shorty
 

“No one can give you the secret of screenwriting because no such secret exists. No one knows exactly how to write a superior screenplay. It is a matter of instinct and experience- or talent, living, learning and practice.”
                                                                                Edward Dmytryk
                                                                                Director, The Caine Mutiny 


“If you were to just focus on a day job and work really hard – you’ll probably make about as much (if not more) than you will writing scripts. With less hassle and more peace of mind.”
                                                                                 William Martell 
                                                                                 Screenwriter, 
                                                                                 West Coast Editor
                                                                                 of Scr(i)pt Magazine  

“The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement.”
                                                                                 John Steinbeck
                                                                                 Speech at Nobel Prize Banquet

“It’s much easier to do the impossible than the ordinary.”
                                                                                 Ken Kragen
                                                                                 Entertainment Lawyer/
                                                                                 Manager & Organizer of
                                                                                 We Are the World
                                                                                 & Hands Across America 

“The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time.”
                                                                                 James Taylor

“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you was?
                                                                                 Satchel Paige

“The problem with the rat race is even if you win you’re still a rat.”
                                                                                 Lilly Tomlin 

“The only way to rise above the pack is not be a part of it.”
                                                                                 Don Hewitt
                                                                                 Creator/Executive
                                                                                 producer 60 Minutes 

“If we couldn’t laugh we’d all go insane.”
                                                                                 Jimmy Buffett

“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”
                                                                                 Mark Twain 

“The idea that your career is your life is a great misconception. Your career is just one of the tools to help you have the most fulfilling and successful life possible.”

                                                                                 Ken Kragen
                                                                                 Life is a Contact Sport
                                                                                  

“Who have you ever heard, as the lay on their deathbed, say, ‘Gee, I should have spent more time on my business’?”
                                                                                  Lee Iaciocca

My goal when I began this Diablo Cody-inspired blog on screenwriting was to bring some structure to my many notes in hopes of preparing this for a book. I set a mark in January of 50,000 words by the first day of summer (June 20). It seemed like an ambitious goal, but my last post on May 31 actually surpassed that goal. I’ll continue to post on screenwriting up until June 20 because I have a few more areas to flesh out. And then I’ll reevaluate the direction I’ll head.

After all, I don’t want to waste my life just reading and writing blogs. And I’ve started two new screenplays since I began this blog so there is other work to be done. Thanks to everyone for visiting over the months because without a growing list of views on my WordPress stat chart I’m not sure I would have been motivated to complete my 50,000 word goal.

And a special thanks to Mystery Man on Film for his screenwriting blog that has pointed many people my way. His blog is kind of a greatest hits of screenwriting sites. Way too much information there. But a better place for a writer to spend time than watching TV, playing video games, or looking for real estate deals in Hawaii you plan on buying once your script sells.

 

copyright @2008 Scott W. Smith 

 

 

Read Full Post »

“Of course Nebraska is a storehouse for literary material. Everywhere is a storehouse of literary material. If a true artist were born in a pigpen and raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for work. The only need is the eye to see.”
                                                                                                        Willa Cather
                                                                                                        My Antonia

 

In other posts we’ve looked at screenwriters from Iowa and some surrounding states- Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota, but today let’s head to the west and take a look at Nebraska. 

Before we get to the screenwriting part of that state let me say that Nebraska has produced four giants of cinema on the performing end of feature films; Henry Ford, Fred Astaire, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando.

Toss in producer Darryle F. Zanuck, TV personalities Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett as well as other actors James Coburn, Nick Nolte, Janine Turner and most recently Hilary Swank and you have a nice roster of entertainment talent from this Midwest state.

But no list of creatives from Nebraska is complete without mentioning Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Willa Cather whose novels O Pioneers! & My Antonia have had lasting success.

As we look at screenwriting from Nebraska there is one name that stands out in bold, Alexander Payne. The Academy-Award winning writer of Sideways grew up just over the Iowa border in Omaha, reportedly on the same street as Warren Buffett. His films Election, About Schmidt, and Citizen Ruth were all shot in Nebraska.

Payne earned his master’s degree at the UCLA where one of his teachers was Lew Hunter. Lew’s also from Nebraska and his resume is more of a creative journey. He earned two master’s degrees, worked as a radio DJ, an NBC page, story executive and wrote the Emmy-nominated script Fallen Angel, before going on to be the co-founder of the M.F.A. screenwriting program at UCLA. His book Screenwriting 434 flowed out of that class. 

A couple years ago I was reading a screenwriting book by Skip Press and saw that Lew Hunter now lived part of the year in Superior, Nebraska. Since I was heading from Cedar Falls, Iowa in a few days for a shoot in Colorado Springs I found Superior on a map and decided I could make a slight detour and pass through there. (Superior, by the way,  is called the “Victorian Capital of the Midwest.”)

I tracked down Lew’s email and sent him a note. He was in town and welcomed me to not only stop by but to stay the night in his writer’s house that he uses for workshops. So I was able to not only spend some time talking with him about his various experiences in the industry but stayed up at night watching old tapes from his UCLA classes of various people like Billy Wilder talking to his class. 

I later interviewed him for this article that appeared in Create Magazine.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a farm outside the small, 392-person village of Guide Rock, Nebraska.

How did growing up on a farm prepare you for a career in Hollywood?
I was given a sense of a work ethic when I was five years old. I did all the things kids do on a farm.

Was there any expression of the arts or creativity in your home?
My mother was quite a different farmwomen. She was a graduate of the University of Nebraska, in music generally and violin specifically.And she went to the New England Conservatory of Music. My mother had me doing piano lessons when I was 3 years old. And she read Shakespere, “Beowulf” and Greek legends with me on her knee. My father was sort of a Will Rogers character in terms of humor and style.

What lead to your Hollywood writing career?
I went over to the story department at Disney Studios. After two years of reading scripts and books trying to get the material into the studio, I was having lunch with Ray Bradbury about doing the “Martin Chronicles,” and we were talking and I said, Ray I’m really thinking about being a writer, and I’ve read about 2,000 scripts and about 90 % are feces. And I think I can be in that top 10 percent of feces. And he gave me two books to read, One was “The Wisdom of Insecurity” by Alan Watts and the other was Dorothea Brande, “Becoming a Writer.”

So how did you actually make that transition to becoming a writer?
I had saved up enough money to focus on writing for a year and wrote six feature-length scripts. The more ponies you pick in the race, the greater your chances of winning. After the year was up my money had run out and I needed a job. My agent called and said that ABC and Aaron Spelling wanted my script, “If Tomorrow Comes” (about Japanese/Americans held captive in California during WWll) and that started my writing career.

The American Screenwriters Association awarded you with a Lifetime Achievment Award a few years ago. But you paid your dues. That’s a valuable lesson for young writers.
Everyone pays their dues to become successful. I’ll give you a perfect example. Screenwriter Brian Price is sitting in my UCLA graduate 434 class and I hold up a Variety (magazine). And on the front page it says first-time writer sells script to Universal. And I said to Brian, “How many scripts did you write before you became a first-time screenwriter?” and he says, “Ten.” I joined WGA (Writers Guild of America) in 1969 and came to Hollywood in 1956.

It seems like more people than ever are writing screenplays. What is your advice anyone wanting to be a screenwriter?
The most important thing I would tell anyone in terms of writing of any kind is when I was at Northwestern, John Steinbeck came and gave a talk and afterwards I went up to him and asked, “What must I do to become a wonderful writer?” Mr. Steinbeck twitched his beard a little with his thumb and forefinger and he said, “Write.” And turned and walked away.

Graduates in the UCLA M.F.A. program are required to write between six and eight screenplays before they graduate. That’s a lot of writing.
It astonishes me when someone telling me they’re a writer and I ask how many screenplays they’ve written and they say, “One.” You’ve got to do the process. Somewhere between four and six scripts is the equivalent of getting up on water skies.

Is it simply talent that separates UCLA Alumni writers David Ward, Francis Ford Coppola, Eric Roth, Alan Ball, David Capthem and former student of yours Alexander Payne from other writers?
It’s three things. Tenacity, focus, and there is an element of luck involved. Of course, there is the street phrase, “The harder I work the luckier I get.” I don’t think they’re smarter than anyone reading this transcript. I believe everyone has the opportunity to be a wonderful screenwriter.

Do you think with the digital technology there is going to be a new style of writing emerging or a revolution in storytelling outside of New York and LA?
I don’t think there will be a new style of writing, but I think it will be easier opportunities for people to knock people off their socks if they have a good story. It will always come doen to story and character and character and story. With a computer editing bay, a DV camera, very little money, and some talented friends and a good script, you’re going to be able to come up with something that’s going to knock people’s socks off. It’s very exciting to think of some boy or girl in some ghetto around the world will get ahold of a computer and tell a story like “Salaam Bombay.” 

Twice a year (June & September) Lew hosts 14-day workshops patterned after the UCLA M.F.A. screenwriting program.  Learn more about Lew and his workshop at lewhunter.com. Lew and his wife Pamela are gracious hosts and I think any screenwriter would benefit from spending a couple weeks in Nebraska learning from Lew.  

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

schoolhouse.jpg

“I wrote screenplays as a way to get into production. I wrote six or seven before I sold one.”
Lawrence Kasden
screenwriter, Raiders of the Lost Ark

There is an age-old question; Can writing be taught?

Don’t be silly, of course it can.

When it comes to most things in life we expect that we must be taught how to do them properly. We are taught how to ride a bike, swim, our A-B-C’s, to a drive a car, how to be a doctor or a mechanic. Talent and drive will play a part in how well we do something, but Tiger Woods’ dad taught him how to hit a golf ball and Archie Manning taught his boys (Peyton & Eli, Super Bowl MVPs) how to throw a football.

For some reason when it comes to the arts many yield to the old saying that that is a talent we are simply born with. I took the photo of the little red school house yesterday just for this blog. (I took the barn photo at the top as well while driving to a short film I was working on this summer.) I was taught in high school and college about lighting, composition, exposures, etc. I took bad pictures and teachers told me what I did wrong. I read books and studied great photographers. I learned how to be a photographer. (It probably didn’t hurt that my mom was an art teacher.) While I don’t claim to be the next Ansel Adams, that skill has paid a few bills.

Here’s what the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop states on their website:

“Though we agree in part with the popular insistence that writing cannot be taught, we exist and proceed on the assumption that talent can be developed. If one can ‘learn’ to play the violin or to paint, one can ‘learn’ to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well.”

Okay, so maybe they had a lawyer look over that document so it essentially says writing can’t be taught but it is something you can learn. Fine. I’m in their camp on this matter. If they don’t want to use the T word that’s their prerogative. With their track record they can call whatever goes on there whatever they want. (But I do think we’re dealing with a degree of semantics between educating, training, honing skills, inspiring, developing, encouraging and teaching.)

Often when people talk about being self-taught they mean they weren’t taught in the formal sense of going to school and taking classes. But make no mistake, they were taught. One can learn in a variety of ways outside a classroom, but having a mentor is the best way to learn a trade. That is the way the Renaissance painters learned. It was a tradition passed down for generations in various trades be it a shoe smith, a glass blower, or a carpenter. In the United States that model has been eclipsed a good deal by academia.

How would someone go about teaching themselves how to write if they lived, say, in the middle-of-nowhere? Here’s what screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wrote, “Inhale a writer you admire. Knowing nothing about writing a play, Paddy Chayefsky (Network) taught himself playwriting by sitting down at the typewriter and copying Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour word for word. He said, ‘I studied every line of it and kept asking myself, Why did she write this particular line.’” That’s a passion for learning.

Now probably the majority of writers these days do come from a college educated background. But it’s not a requirement. Neil Simon said the closest he got to college was walking by NYU. At one time Simon had three plays running on Broadway and has had a string of hit films. Where did he learn how to write? He credits his older brother Danny.

Academy Award winning writer of Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino said, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, no, I went to films.” That was his education. He also studied acting and a filmmaking workshop or two.

Some writers come from law school (John Grisham) and some from medical school (Michael Crichton. Who, by the way, wrote Twister shot here in Iowa–can’t pass those opportunities.) Writers come from everywhere.

And writers keep writing. One thing I will keep shouting on this blog is that screenwriters that get produced are relentless. I just read an interview with Geoff Rodkey, who said after his screenplay Daddy Day Care was released, “I’ve written something like eighteen screenplays, and this is the only one that’s ever been made.” Sure the reviews were less than glowing, but my hat goes off to anyone who can pull in $100 million in the box office.

And what do writers do before that breakthrough? They keep writing.

“I felt the years go by without accomplishment. Occasionally I wrote a short story that no one bought. I called myself a writer though I had no true subject matter. Yet from time to time I sat at a table and wrote, although it took years for my work to impress me.”
Bernard Malamud (The Natural and Pulitzer Prize winner The Fixer)

“Learning to write is not a linear process. There is no logical A-B-C way to become a good writer,” says Natalie Goldberg.

There may not be a logical way to being a good writer, but having a good mentor or teacher is probably the most common factor found in successful writers. You’re fortunate if you can find one in your life. This is not to be confused with a screenwriting guru who passes though town over the weekend. They can be helpful as I’ve pointed out before, but are best seen as a quick motivational jolt.  A mentor or teacher guides you through the ups and downs of your learning process. They invest in you as a writer and as a person. They nurture your writing.

Lew Hunter who helped found the masters in screenwriting program at UCLA used to open his home in Burbank to writers. Since retiring he now runs Lew Hunter’s Superior Summer Screenwriting Colony in Nebraska. He used to teach fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne (Sideways).

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
John Steinbeck

Though none of my feature screenplays have been produced I have had the opportunity to hear actors say words I have written for short films, radio dramas, one-act plays and video productions. I’ve had over a 100 newspaper and magazine articles published. And I have carved out a 20-year career working in media production. And it all began with one teacher at Lake Howell High School who took an interest in developing in me a skill in writing that I didn’t really know I had. (Honestly, I signed up for her creative writing class because it looked like an easy elective.)

“A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows and rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.”
Goethe

So this Monday Night when ABC airs a new version of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (starring Sean Combs) I will be watching and thinking of Dr. Annye Refoe who showed the Sidney Poitier film version to our creative writing class. For it was there I began to see and appreciate powerful writing.

Somewhere in Hansberry’s education growing up in Chicago and later at the University of Wisconsin-Madison she learned how to write. And she took some negative experiences that had happened in her life and turned them into something that we’re still watching today. If you’re a writer, I hope your work finds that kind of light. And if you’re a teacher, may you help your students write one single good poem, or perhaps a single good screenplay.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: