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“The internet is a miraculous things. Just share as much as you can, self-publish, blog, podcast whatever you need to do. Just make sure you are not withholding your gifts from the world. Because you have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
Diablo Cody

Today marks the 12th anniversary of Screenwriting from Iowa … and Other Unlikely Places.  The original goal was to take a year and blog a book. I failed that task—but there’s still hope. And at least in the first year the blog won a regional Emmy so that was a nice tradeoff. (See the post Juno Has a Baby.)

And I got a nice shout-out from screenwriter Diablo Cody when she was on Twitter back in the day. Her Oscar-winning  Juno script and Midwest background were a large part of starting this blog, and she’s been featured in many posts over the years. I think her tweet was a response to my 2010 post Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt.)

Diablo Cody Twitter copy copy

After chipping away at the book for a decade I thought I was close to finishing it about a year ago. I turned it over to an editor who did what good editors do. His suggested changes and comments totaled 3,000. One of his biggest challenges to me was not to copout saying it was a book cobbled together from random blog posts, but to make a book that stands on its own. So that’s what I’ve tried to do the past six months and believe the finished product is elevated greatly because of the changes. More in coming weeks about the book’s release.

change

But seeing those edit notes was a blow. Like thinking you at the end of running a marathon only to be told, “Oh, this isn’t the finish line, you still have 10 miles to go.” It took me three months just to wrap my head around doing a deep pass on the 225 pages. Now I’m down to a dozen changes so I’m hopeful that I will finally get the completed version of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles out by March of this year.  At least, that’s the new goal.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share my introduction to the book which happens to mention actor Dwayne Johnson’s father—the former pro wrestler Rocky Johnson— who died last week.

Screen Shot 2020-01-23 at 4.37.21 PM

 

PREFACE
(For the book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles  by Scott W. Smith)

“I wasn’t born knowing how to write a play.”
—Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright

“How did I learn screenwriting? It was a matter of years of trying to develop my writing in the same way that some people spend years learning to play the violin.”
—Screenwriter Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption)

In the ten years of writing the blog Screenwriting from Iowa . . . and Other Unlikely Places, I’ve found advice and insight on the creative process from more than 700 gifted screenwriters, filmmakers, and teachers. I realized that I could consolidate some of this material as a book, revising and reorganizing it in ways that I thought would be most helpful to people’s creative journeys. I want these ideas to function like brass knuckles in an old-school professional wrestling match.

I don’t know if Aristotle ever used brass knuckles, but they are said to have been around since the ancient Greeks. Abraham Lincoln’s secret service men carried brass knuckles. And legend has it that brass knuckles were Al Capone’s favorite weapon.

The term “loaded fist” in Japanese martial arts refers to a martial arts version of brass knuckles that can turn a punch into a sledgehammer. As a troubled youth in Hong Kong, Bruce Lee carried brass knuckles, giving a twist of meaning to his trademark movie Fist of Fury.

Today brass knuckles are brandished in popular video games and music videos. Spike Lee even wore brass knuckles to the 2019 Academy Awards.

My introduction to brass knuckles was watching professional wrestling on TV as a kid. This was not the high-dollar spectacle of today but the low-budget version, usually taped in a small studio in Tampa, Florida.

Actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s father, Rocky Johnson,* was a wrestler in the pre-WWE era when professional wrestling was more regionally orientated and the bag of tricks (and storylines) was more limited.

This was at a time in my youth when I didn’t know if professional wrestling was real or not. What I did know was that professional wrestling had a cast of characters with colorful names like Abdullah the Butcher, Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes, and Andre the Giant, and it was flat out entertaining.

Inevitably, when one wrestler was getting beat up and close to losing a match, brass knuckles would magically appear (and oftentimes un-magically when he reached into his wrestling trunks and pulled out brass knuckles).

The announcer Gordon Solie would say something like, Wait a minute, what’s he have in his right hand? It looks like a foreign object. Oh no, it looks like a pair of brass knuckles!

At the last minute, this would give the almost beaten wrestler an upper hand in the match. It would result in not only a victory for the trickster but also in a bloody mess. For a ten-year-old boy this was as good as a vampire movie.

My goal with this book is not to create a bloody mess, but to offer the equivalent of brass knuckles for writers — screenwriters in particular. Ideas found in this book can serve as powerful resources in urgent moments of desperation—or to avoid those moments altogether.

By “screenwriting” I mean any screen: the big screen, TV, computers, tablets, mobile devices, virtual reality, video games, and even some non-screen dramatic writing such as theater and podcasts.

This book will not substitute for a good writing teacher or mentor, but it can give you some valuable ideas to hang on to, “foreign objects” thrown into the ring as you struggle to craft and sell your own stories.

*Rocky Johnson was actually the 1976 NWA Brass Knuckles Champion.

Related post:
Hitting Rock Botton with The Rock (And my very loose University of Miami football connection with The Rock.)

Scott W. Smith

 

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“You have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
Screenwriter Diablo Cody
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)

“You absolutely can make movies. The idea of having a career in the movie business is very, very different ”
Writer/director John Sayles (Lone Star, Sunshine State)

Diablo Cody poses backstage after winning an Oscar for best original screenplay for Juno at the 80th annual Academy Awards in Hollywood

Apparently it’s Mike Birbiglia week. After three days of pulling quotes from Mike Birbiglia’s interview with Tim Ferriss, I was surprised yesterday to hear Birbiglia interviewed by Craig Mazin on Scriptnotes.

What jumped out to me on his interview with Mazin was a brief exchange that hits at the the core of what I’ve been blogging about since 2008 after former University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody hit the screenwriting scene with Juno.

Mike Birbiglia: I’ve been traveling around the country with Liz Allen who coached our improv team in [Don’t Think Twice] and she does these free improv workshops at these [indie film] theaters, and I speak about how improv is related to my process as a director, writer and actor. And the thing I say is I would highly recommend people make something. If they’re living in Austin, or Iowa City, or Chicago or anywhere, and feel like you have something to say or a story to tell—we’re in an era where you can shoot something for nothing. And if you don’t believe me, go on Netflix and watch Tangerine [a film shot on a iphone that played at Sundance] and you’ll go, “Oh, that can be a movie? Holy cow. ”

Craig Mazin: You’re 100% right. But I wouldn’t suggest necessarily for people to start making things so that you can become famous and sell those things. Make them as part of your education. You don’t have to show them to anybody. If you make something of your own thing and hate it, you’ve learned so much.

MB:I did that in college. I shot a short film called Waiting to Be Great.

CM: —It’s still waiting?

MB: Yeah, it’s still waiting. It’s really not done. In the edit we kind of gave up on it at a certain point. We showed it to friends. It was just terrible. They said, “Nice try.”

So while you’re waiting to be great—just make something. It doesn’t even have to be good.  Have you ever seen Quentin Tarantino‘s first feature film? There’s a good chance you haven’t. I’m not talking about Reservoir Dogs, but the lesser known My Best Friend’s Birthday. A film that reportedly took four years to shoot and of which only 36 minutes survive due to a fire. (The first cut was 70 minutes and never released.)

I can’t recall Tarantino even talking about My Best Friend’s Birthday, but I imagine friends at some point told him, “Nice try.”And I’m pretty sure it played a key part of his education in becoming two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Quentin Tarantino.

As you’re waiting to be great, just make something. It won’t be Juno, and it won’t be My Best Friend’s Birthday, but it will be a heck of an education. And it will be your vision that you helped create with a small team of people.

P.S.. And to round out yesterday’s post Bad Script, Good Pizza, Great Feedback you can add Frank Oz, Nicole Holofcener, Greta Gerwig and Mazin to the list of people Birbiglia had over to his place for script readings of Don’t Think Twice.

Note: Liz Allen coauthored the book Improvising Better: A Guide for the Working Improviser.

Related posts:
How to Shoot a Feature in 10 Days
Shooting a Feature Film in 4 Days
Shooting a Feature Film in 2 Days
Shooting a Feature Film in 1 Day
Shooting a Feature Film Over Dinner
The 10 Film Commandments of Edwards Burns
Writing for Low Budget Films
Filmmaking Quote #44 (John Sayles)
Filmmaker/Entrepreneur Robert Rodriguez
Start Small…But Start Somewhere

Diablo Cody related posts:
The Diablo Cody–Damien Chapelle Connection
Diablo Cody Day
The Juno-Iowa Connection
“Keep Your Head Down” “You will be a big deal for about ten seconds.”-Cody

Quentin Tarantino related posts:
Tarantino Gumbo Soup Film School
“When you have a big flop…”
“What I’m really here to do…”
“The way I write…”

Scott W. Smith

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“A warmth radiates through Ricki and the Flash like a song sung true.”
NPR review/Meryl Streep Shines in ‘Ricki And The Flash’

“When I wrote [Ricki and the Flash] I was thinking micro-indie, honestly. I just wrote it on spec and I did not think there would be any interest in it. I still believe the only reason this movie got made was because Meryl Streep attached herself to it.  The fact that this is [my] biggest release in terms of screens—it’s scary.
Screenwriter Diablo Cody
DP/30 Interview

“I do know the appetite for the kind of movie I write has changed. Like Juno came out at a really great time, because it was Little Miss Sunshine—those Searchlight movies were making bank. If Juno came out this year, I don’t think it would be a hit. I feel like it’s harder right now. I feel like what people are looking for now is more of a spectacle…I feel like movies that are getting people out to the theater are movies that require you to be in an immersive experience with a huge screen and 3-D glasses. But Ricki and the Flash is a musical movie, tons of performances—you want to be in it. I think this is a theatrical movie and I hope people get that.”
Diablo Cody
DP/30 Interview

“That’s the weird thing about having an extraordinary success right out of the gate [with Juno], and like winning an Oscar and all that weirdness. Like you know that’s not going to happen again. That was truly a career high. For anybody that would be a career high. And mine happened bizarrely right away. So I never sit around thinking, ‘Oh, that’s going to happen again.’ I was like, ‘I’m going to enjoy this moment, and maybe I’ll go back to Minnesota when this is all over.’ I didn’t know if I was going to keep writing. It was a crazy experience. It’s like a hit of crack. Oh, it’d be great to feel that again. But at the same time you have to say, like, what’s the terrible Facebook cliche— ‘Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.'”
Diablo Cody
DP/ 30 Interview

P.S. So how did Cody get Streep interested in the script?

“I had originally brought this project to [producer] Marc Platt and he happened to be shooting Into the Woods at that exact moment in time. So he was in England with her and he was able to maneuver the script into [Streep’s] hands, which is not an easy thing to do. An A-list star has so many gatekeepers.”
Diablo Cody
The Hollywood Reporter article by Rebecca Ford 

P.P.S. If you’re new to this blog you may not beware that I started this blog in January 2008 just days after seeing Juno and learning that Diablo Cody went to the University of Iowa and wrote the Juno script while living in the suburbs of Minneapolis. At the time I was living in Cedar Falls, Iowa (between Iowa City and the Twin Cities) and decided that I could come at screenwriting and filmmaking from a different perspective. In the post Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy) I wrote about how Cody and Juno helped pave the wave for me to earn a Regional Emmy—in Minneapolis to boot.

Cody’s early success—and flair— made her a polarizing character in Hollywood and beyond. I feel like Cody’s big brother here, but before anyone in any part of the greater screenwriting community has a bad word to say about Cody please check out the Scriptnotes podcast How to Not Be a Jerk (Epidode:209). Or as writer/director Garry Marshall said, “Kindness is free.”


Related posts:
‘Emotional Catharsis’—Diablo Cody
Screenwriting Quote #1 (Diablo Cody)
Diablo Cody on Theme
Cody on Expo
‘Keep Your Head Down’ “Keep your head down and work as much as you can.”—Diablo Cody
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt “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
The Juno—Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m not interested in characters who aren’t broken.”
3-time Oscar nominated screenwriter John Logan (Gladiator)

“All characters are wounded souls, and the stories we tell are merely an acting out of the healing process. They are the closing of open wounds, the scabbing-over process.”
Richard Krevolin
Screenwriting from the Soul

Today is the sixth anniversary of Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, and I’m pleased to announce my loose and distant connection to a recent (and controversial) Oscar nomination. In fact, Deadline called it the “Academy’s Most Obscure Nominee—Maybe EVER.” Since one of the inspirations for starting this blog was the movie Juno, let me start there.

When Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) was 17 she got pregnant. When Joni Eareckson was 17 she broke her neck. The movie character Juno gave her baby up for adoption and went back to singing indie songs. The real life person Joni became a quadriplegic and went back to singing gospel hymns.  Screenwriter Diablo Cody walked away with an Oscar for writing Juno. Joni spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair—but also recorded a song that’s just been nominated for an Oscar.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms

The now 64-year-old Joni also become a speaker, author of 50 books, married Ken Tada, and for the past 35 years has provided a global outreach to people with disabilities—including an organization that restores 10,000 wheelchairs per year and ships them to people in need around the world. If you like heroic underdog stories then you’ll enjoy Joni’s.

The Hollywood Reporter says the Oscar nominated song she sings (Alone Yet Not Alone) caused a “mini-controversy.”  The Week called the nominee “shady” and a “genuine head-scratcher.” You can read those links, but what’s speculated is the song (music by Bruce Broughton and lyrics by Dennis Spiegel—the two who actually got the nomination) benefited from a little Hollywood back scratching.

Hollywood studios spend millions—sometimes $10-15 million on promoting their movies. There’s much written about the fierce battles to win Oscars and how every front door, back door, side door, trap door—and even no door— is explored to win the coveted award that can result in millions of dollars on the back-end of a movie. The stakes are high.  (My friend Matthew recommends the book The Men Who Would Be King which gives insights into the Oscar process. He told me, “In short, it’s ugly. Makes a UFC bout look like a Tupperware party.”)

Hollywood has been called the world’s biggest high school and at this year’s Academy Awards Alone Yet Not Alone is not sitting at the cool kids table. It’s the kid in the wheelchair sitting alone in the cafeteria.  And I hate to throw out the C word here, but adding to the controversy is the song  (which beat out songs by Coldplay, Taylor Swift, Celine Dion and other heavyweights) is from a little seen Christian film shot in the Ohio Valley.

Who knows, maybe the song’s nomination was the Academy’s version of adding a little diversity to the Oscars. A wild card—like sprinkling in Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa into the Oscar nominations (Steve Prouty for hair & makeup). And maybe, just maybe, the song was nominated on merit. Broughton after all does have an Oscar (Silverado) and 8 Primetime Emmys. (Talent not typically found on a smaller independent film.)

But keep in mind there are four Biblical films coming out this year including Russell Crowe as Noah and the February release of Son of God —and even the book that’s the basis for the Angelina Jolie directed Unbroken (scheduled for a December release) has a Christian theme. Studios are concerned about every Christian with ten dollars in their pocket and just the Academy nominating Alone Yet Not Alone (for whatever reason) I imagine is seen as an olive branch by many Christians.  That olive branch didn’t hurt a little Mel Gibson film a decade ago.

Several years ago when I was based in Cedar Falls, Iowa I provided camerawork for an episode of a TV program that Joni and Friends produced.  (Couldn’t find that program online, but Wheels for a Kid’s World gives you a solid glimpse into Joni’s work and world.) I also produced a video of Joni talking at the Minneapolis Convention Center and remember it well because she quoted a classic Frank Darabont script and movie.

(Here’s a similar context I found online from a book Joni wrote about visiting someone she knew in intensive care and unresponsive after a tragic accident. )

“I sat there by Gracie’s hospital bed. I read Scriptures to her. I sang to her: ‘Be still my soul, the Lord is on thy side.’ I leaned over as far forward as I could and whispered, ‘Oh Gracie, Gracie, remember. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.’ She blinked at that point, and I knew she recognized the phrase. It’s a line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption.
Joni Eareckson Tada
Hope…the Best of Things

While I did talk with Joni it’s doubtful she’d remember me, but I remember her well. And I got a signed book out of the deal.

Because Joni can’t use her arms she signs books with a pen in her mouth. (And singing is no simple task either for Joni. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “Her lung capacity is just 51 percent of what it ought to be — so weak, in fact, that her husband needed to push on her diaphragm while she recorded the Oscar-nominated song to give her enough breath to hit the high notes.”) She’s an amazing woman and I’m thrilled to see her in the spotlight. And the best thing about a little Oscar controversy is it puts the spotlight on the global work she’s done and continues to do for people and their families dealing with disabilities. You know the old cliché , “Hollywood couldn’t have written a better story”—but I’m glad they added a chapter to Joni’s story.

photo

That book,  Joni, An Unforgettable Story, is an updated version of the book she wrote that became the feature film Joni (1979) written and directed by James F. Collier and stars Joni herself.

“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these things.”
George Washington Carver

1/29/14 Update: According to Indiewire tonight, “The Academy’s Board of Governors voted to take back the Original Song nomination for ‘Alone Yet Not Alone,’  music by Bruce Broughton and lyric by Dennis Spiegel. The decision was ‘prompted by the discovery that Broughton, a former Governor and current Music Branch executive committee member, had emailed members of the branch to make them aware of his submission during the nominations voting period.'”

No additional song will be added. One good thing that came out of this Oscar controversy is it shed a little light on the work Joni is doing.

And really, if you’re a producer of Alone Yet Not Alone you have to take this news like Bill Murray in Scrooged did when he’s told about a woman who had a heart attack over a TV promo his network ran. Murray at first looks distraught, then exclaims, “You can’t buy this kind of publicity!” Alone But Not Alone was put on the radar because of this controversay and today’s news seals the deal on it being locked in as a permenat footnote in Oscar history. Can’t hurt ticket or DVD sales when the film is released. And in ten or twenty years people may forget who won for best picture, or best actor—but will remember the Alone But Not Alone controversy. Call it the year of the “Oscar-nomination but not an Oscar-nomination.”

P.S. When I lived in Burbank, California back in the ’80s I would sometimes get calls to my house asking if I was “the editor Scott Smith.” At the time I was a 16mm operator/editor, but I knew who they were really looking for—  M. Scott Smith. Smith at that point had edited  To Live and Die in L.A. and Some Kind of Wonderful. Other big projects he’s edited are The Crow and Ladder 49 starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix. Turns out he’s the editor on Alone Yet Not Alone.

Scott W. Smith

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“[Franklin] Leonard grew up in Columbus, Ga., as one of a handful of black students in his high school, which he says has always helped him identify with outsiders.”
Rachel Dodes
The Wall Street Journal

"Screenwriting from Iowa...and Other Unlikely Places" readers in 2013 represent 116 Countries

“Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places” readers in 2013 represent 116 Countries

It always seems to come back to Juno.

Yesterday I came across the The Black List Annual Report for 2013 and it’s fun to look at just because it’s so well designed by Glen Charbonneau. I also learned that the first script on The Black List to win an Oscar was Diablo Cody’s Juno. The same movie that inspired the launching of this blog because it was written by an outsider. Cody was Chicago born and raised, received her college education in Iowa, and lived and worked in Minneapolis when her writing on the side got the attention of a Hollywood insider.

But beyond the design and glance at the history of launching the first Black List in 2006 the report also gives a sweeping overview of the work they are doing. If you are unfamiliar with The Black List check out The Wall Street Journal article, For Budding Screenwriters, a Way Past the Studio Gates

Franklin Leonard’s had an interesting journey on his way to being the founder of The Black List; Raised in small town Georgia, degree from Harvard, analyst at McKinsey in New York, agent assistant at CAA, and creative executive at Will Smith’s company is Los Angeles.

The Black List has morphed and grown over the years and now includes Scott Myers’ Go Into The Story as its official blog and a forums section, The Black Board, with Shaula Evans as the Keymaster. I see The Black List as a place that celebrates talent, fosters community, and is doing its part in providing a pathway for screenwriters and producers to connect.

And while the bulk of the screenwriters connected with The Black List are in the Los Angeles area it’s also nice to see that they are providing a door to people in unlikely places all over the world.

P.S. On a similar note check out the Reddit poster “profound_whatever” who is a script reader who has also put together a nice screenwriting graphic that offers some insights into where scripts come from and some “recurring problems”the ones he reads has—such as “The story begins too late in the script.” That’s the most common problem I see when people ask me to read a script. Many times I’ve told writers the same thing, “I read ten pages and nothing happened.” And the most common answer I get back  is, “Well, I’m setting up the story.” Go watch Kramer Vs. Kramer and then Winter’s Bone and see how long the filmmakers take in setting up the story. (Spoiler: They both come out of the gate like horses at the Kentucky Derby. Granted ever script doesn’t need to have a scene one inciting incident, but I think the less established you are the sooner your story should start.)

ScreenwritingGraph

P.P.S. Going back to a quote by CodyI first read in ’08, “Just put your stuff out there and see what happens,” I get a kick that since its inception this blog has been read in more than 85% of the countries , regions, and dependent areas of the world, including BurndiMacau, Suriname, and Yemen. Thanks for reading wherever you are in the world and best wishes on your writing finding an audience.

Related Posts:

The Outsider Advantage
The First Black Feature Filmmaker
Screenwriting Quote #180 (Justin Kremer)
The World Outside of Hollywood (Buck Henry quote)
One of the Benefits of Being an Outsider ( Robert Rodriguez quote)

Scott W. Smith

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“Never forget this: Ordinary pumpkins are always forgotten. Only the giant pumpkin draws a crowd and lives on holiday cards, refrigerators and grainy You Tube videos…forever. The giant pumpkin is legend. And when you’ve grown one…you will be a legend, too.”
Mike Michalowicz
The Pumpkin Plan: A Simple Strategy to Grow a Remarkable Business in Any Field

A few weeks ago on creativeLIVE I caught a little bit of Mike Michalowicz’s talk on his book The Pumpkin Plan. One of my takeaways regarding screenwriting is your writing has to be a giant pumpkin. Diablo Cody’s Juno script was not an ordinary pumpkin. It drew a crowd, launched a career, and made her a legend. (Heck, it even helped inspire this blog.) Remember, “Ordinary pumpkins are always forgotten.”

At the same time don’t get caught up in writing the great script. Rather focus on what WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart calls The Right Script. Perhaps think in terms of a special pumpkin.

Now if you’re expecting a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa do give something you won’t find in any other blog on screenwriting—here it is:

And here’s a great pumpkin bonus video.

Related Post:

Juno Has Another Baby
The Juno-Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith

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“Just focus on the writing and everything else will fall into place.”
Aaron Guzikowski

While the name Aaron Guzikowski may not roll off the tongue as easy as saying Diablo Cody,  there are similarities between the two screenwriters . Cody is a writer with Chicago/Iowa City/Minneapolis roots who worked a regular (non-creative) job at an advertising agency until her writing got the attention of a Hollywood insider. Guzikowski is a writer from the greater Boston area (Brockton), who had been living in Brooklyn, NY and working a regular (non-creative) job in advertising until his writing got the attention of a Hollywood insider.

Both had been writing since their youth and followed that path through college. Cody studied media studies at the University of Iowa and Guzikowski studied art and film at the Pratt Institute. Cody’s Juno made The Black List before it got produced and became a well reviewed movie and a box office hit—and she won an Academy Award for the script. Guzikowski’s Prisoners also made The Black List, and though just released in theaters it has been well reviewed and is on its way to being a box office hit. (It finished #1 at the box office this past weekend.) Time will tell about any Academy Awards.

One of the big differences between the two writers is Cody was discovered while writing a blog, while Guzikowski via an old school query letter sent in the mail. Cody says she wrote the first draft of Juno in six weeks, and Guzikowski said he took two years to write Prisoners. Regardless, if you’re looking for contemporary success stories of screenwriters who were once living outside of L.A. and working regular day jobs then Cody and Guzikowski (one female, one male) are as solid  examples as you can find.

And they both did it not by writing a great script but by writing material that had a voice and connected them with people inside Hollywood who could help develop that voice. The great scripts and the great movies—and the big money— came later.

“[Guzikowski] finished the screenplay for Prisoners while working at an ad agency in New York – getting up at 5 a.m. to write most workdays, penning his thoughts whenever he could at work, then coming home again to write.”
Maria Papadopoulos
The Enterprise

Back in 2009, I wrote the post called The Breakfast Club for Writers where I pointed out how Elmore Leonard, John Grisham, and Ron Bass all once got up at 5 AM to write before their day jobs. So I guess Guzikowski’s in the club.

But the real take away from Guzikowski is the commitment to craft.

“When it comes to submissions, the only thing you want to stand out is the writing, so it pays to adhere to industry standards. As for competition, there’s not much point thinking about it. Just concentrate on the story you’re trying to tell….I signed with my manager first (through a query letter), worked with him for two years developing Prisoners, then after I completed it, I signed with my agent. You don’t really need an agent until you have something that’s ready for market. In terms of how hard it was, working on the script was the hard part, and if you pay enough dues on that end, then securing representation — even without having previously sold anything — becomes a lot easier.”
Aaron Guzikowski
2009 Q&A/Limite Magazine

P.S. The Boston area sure has a solid history of producing excellent screenwriters.

Related Posts:
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70)
The Idea is King (Focus not writing the great script, but the “right script”)
Screenwriting from Massachusetts
Will Simmons’ Road to Hollywood (Black List writer who was delivering pizzas in Boston a few years ago.)
Writing “Good Will Hunting” These former no-name writers won an Academy Award for their first produced screenplay.

Scott W. Smith

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“There was absolutely no pressure on me because I was just sitting in Minnesota writing for my own edification.”
Diablo Cody on writing Juno

Happy 35th birthday Diablo Cody.

If you’re fairly new to this blog you may not know that a huge impetus for starting this blog back in 2008 was reading and hearing interviews with a then unknown Cody just as her first film Juno hit the theaters.

“The internet is a miraculous things. Just share as much as you can, self-publish, blog, podcast whatever you need to do. Just make sure you are not withholding your gifts from the world. Because you have so many opportunities now….We’re in a new frontier.”
Diablo Cody

Knowing that she went to school in Iowa and wrote Juno while living in Minneapolis and said various versions of the above quote propelled me to launch this blog on January 22, 2008 after I saw Juno in a theater in Cedar Falls, Iowa. That year she walked away with an Oscar in Hollywood for her script and I walked away with a Regional Emmy (Advanced Media) in Minneapolis for my blog.

I thought of Cody this week when I watched a video of screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) and heard this comment:

“If you want to write or direct you kinda have to go to Los Angeles, I don’t really know anybody who’s done it from here.”
Shane Black giving a talk to students in Minneapolis

Now I love this whole Shane Black revival going on and think I’ll pull some quotes from him next week. But what’s ironic about that quote is it appears that talk was given around 2005 after his released of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. (The video was just uploaded last month but there is no mention of Iron Man 3.) Juno was released in 2007, meaning that around the time Black was making his comment Cody was sitting at a Starbucks in Crystal, Minnesota writing her first script.

A script that would not only get sold, get produced, make $230 million at the box office, but bring her an Oscar.

“I don’t know when I’ve heard a standing ovation so long, loud and warm.”
Roger Ebert writing about Juno after its screening at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival

Diablo Cody is a Cinderella screenwriting story if there ever was one. And, yes, she did move to Los Angeles and just finished directing her first feature Paradise. But I think it’s important to point out that she did it after establishing herself as a writer. As I’ve pointed out before, she had been writing poems, short stories and such everyday since she was 12, got her degree in Media Studies at the University of Iowa, started a blog, wrote for City Pages, and had a book published. That Oscar Award was earned on the back of 15 years worth of writing.

And Minneapolis wasn’t a one shot wonder. The next year Nick Schenk had a script he wrote in a bar called Gran Torino become Clint Eastwood’s biggest box office success. Also, in 2005, screenwriter Bill True from Minneapolis had his first feature produced.) All of this led Ken Levine to (a little tongue in cheek) write in 2008:

“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

So there were a few changes between 2005 and 2008. And now 2005 seems like a 100 years ago. Steven Spielberg made a prediction this week that the movie industry was ready for an ‘“implosion.” Who knows what that all means? But this blog celebrates not only where various writers come from, but what filmmakers around the world are doing today in a fast changing business. If the film business as we know it does implode, something else will rise up out of that rubble. (Just like Tony Stark and Shane Black both did in Iron Man 3.)

“I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines. We’re all gonna be on the Internet trying to find an audience.”
(Steven Spielberg in interview with Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show in 1999/ From the post Screenwriting Outside L.A. 101)

My guess is ten years from now there will still be a place called Hollywood that makes movies. Big movies. But there will also be a lot more people following the likes of Jeff Nichols in Austin, Tyler Perry in Atlanta, Billy Corben in Miami, and Edward Burns in New York—finding their own niche markets and telling stories they want to tell.

And ten years from now Shane Black and Diablo Cody will still be telling stories. They are proven talent and both proven resilient. (Both have received their share of criticism.) Think of Black as Iron Man and Cody as the Woman of Steel.

Related Posts:

Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt
Beatles, Cody & 10,000 Hours
Screenwriting Quote #10 (Nick Schenk)
Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)
Screenwriting Quote #65 (Shane Black)

Scott W. Smith

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(Richard Walter, UCLA Screenwriting professor, Interview Part 5)

SS: The title and subtitle of this blog is “Screenwriting from Iowa….and Other Unlikely Places,” and it was in part inspired by learning that Diablo Cody went to college in Iowa, just about an hour where I live, and wrote the distinctly Midwestern screenplay Juno in a Starbucks in the suburbs of Minneapolis. I think that part of her wild Oscar-winning success is that she tapped into not trying to do what everybody was doing?

Richard Walter: I totally agree with you about Diablo Cody. It was my privilege to be at the Academy Awards the year she won the Oscar and I got to hang out with her a couple of years ago at the Cinequest Festival in San Jose. But you’re absolutely right. One question I get all the time is “Don’t I have to be in L.A. if I want to be a serious screenwriter?” And first all if you want to be in series television, yes.  You have to be available to make pitches. And especially in sitcoms if you succeed in selling a few freelance episodes you will ultimately end up on staff and you have to come in everyday.

But most people want to work in features, theatrically distributed films, and to them I actually say it’s actually an advantage to be from Iowa, to be from anyplace other than L.A. or New York.

There’s a certain kind of cache that applies to being from the midsection. I know one writer, believe it or not, who launders his scripts through a phony address he has in Murfreesboro, Tennessee,  outside of Nashville, because it’s just more exciting than one more writer from the San Fernando Valley.

So there’s much merit in what you say. Unfortunately, a lot of the writers that ask me ,“Do I have to come to L.A.?” really want to come to L.A.  They want a reason or an excuse to come to L.A. and I appreciate that—this is a beautiful town. It’s a diverse culture. It is a world-class international city that has everything that you’d ever want including awfully good weather. With that said, you do not need to be here. You’re actually better off if you want to succeed as a screenwriter being in an other section of the county.  That’s the way it seems to me—very, very clearly I have to say.

Related Posst:

The Juno—Iowa Connection

Screenwriting Quote #1 (Diablo Cody)

Scott W. Smith

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“I never wanted to write a screenplay. To me, writing is this wonderful, indulgent activity where you just fill the page with words.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody
Iconcinema.com

Three years ago today I created my first blog post ever (Life Beyond Hollywood). I started out with a little Diablo Cody inspiration and a modest goal to consolidated my writing notes gathered over the years from film school, books, magazines, seminars & workshops in hopes of it becoming a 50,000 word book—and perhaps helping a fellow writer or two.

Three years later I’ve written 832 posts and over 300,000 words. (With roughly 833 estimated typos, which I blame on posting daily without a copy editor. Like Jimmy Buffett I’m not aiming for perfection—just trying to “capture the magic.”) I’m now in the process of distilling those 832 posts into three books which will be much more refined.

Actually the idea of a book predates the blog. Since I had read quite a few film and video books by Michael Weise Books, and  had just read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat at the end of ’07 (which they published, and I thought was great)  I sent them a book proposal toward the end of 2007 and got this email back from Ken Lee:

Please email me your table of contents and a sample chapter

Thanks

Ken

Ken and I traded emails a few times and I ended up sending him three or four chapters and we spoke on the phone a couple of times and he asked me to think about what I’d like to write and blog about over the next five years. At the end of the day, while there was no deal with Michael Weise Books, this blog in part was an indirect result of my communication with Ken. (If you’re looking for a theme to write about “Success out of Failure” is a great concept because everyone can identify with losing their locker like Rocky did in that first film.)

At the same time I had written those first four chapters I started to read about Diablo Cody’s story about writing the Juno screenplay in Minneapolis, her blogging, and having gone to college at the University of Iowa. Lightning struck. A couple of people showed me the ropes on how to start a blog and four days after seeing the movie Juno I launched my first post exactly three years ago today.

I even traded a few emails in January of 2008 with Blake as his blog was one of the first screenwriting blogs I ever read. In fact, I just found this email from him that ended with: “Best to you in ‘the great 2008’ and yes, I am happy to help in any way I can.” Miss ya Blake, but long live your books & influence.

Later that year, in October of 2008, the Screenwriting from Iowa blog won a Regional Emmy (Minneapolis) in the category of advanced media. A few months later Diablo Cody walked away with an Oscar for writing Juno. Fun.

“I’ve never read a screenwriting book. I’m really superstitious about it too. I don’t even want to look at them. All I did was I went and bought the shooting script of  ‘Ghost World’ at Barnes and Noble and read it just to see how it should look on the page because I like that movie.”
Diablo Cody

The day after my first post I received this email  from Scott Cawelti, an English professor and writer at the University of Northern Iowa: “Ready for a collaboration?” It took a little time, but we recently finished a spec screenplay, have done a couple re-writes, and are just now shopping it. (As a quirky sidenote, Scott was once in a band with Robert Waller who wrote The Bridges of Madison County.)

There was early support from Mystery Man on Film. For the record I think Mystery Man’s post The Raider’s Story Conference is the single best thing you’ll find on the Internet on the process of storytelling. (Make sure to follow the link to the 125 page transcript of Lucas, Spielberg and Kasden as they discuss what became Raiders of the Lost Ark.) I was also encouraged by emails from readers and fellow blogger Scott Myers at Go Into the Story.

Last year the shout out by Diablo Cody on Twitter as well as the TomCruise.com plug were bonuses and will keep me going another year. And I hope some things I write encourage you in your own quest as a writer. In the coming days I’ll have some posts based on interviews I did with UCLA screenwriting professor Richard Walter and screenwriter Dale Launer (My Cousin Vinney, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). This blog has brought me into contact with producers and writers in LA that would be hard for me to connect with otherwise. So if you have a blog in mind, go for it.

But for now let me say thanks for stopping by, best wishes on your own writing and if you need a little inspiration today I hope this helps:

“I can actually give you a really specific bit of advice that I give to everyone. I would not be where I am, I would not be any sort of professional writer if I had not self-published. We live in a day and age where there’s so many opportunities for writers and filmmakers with YouTube to self-publish, to make their own work available without having to go through the rejection letters and the middleman and, you know, it used to be that you were, that if you wanted to share your work with other people, I mean, you had to go through so many channels and jump through so many hoops. And now, you can just put it out there. You know, the internet is a miraculous thing, so just share as much as you can self-publish blog, you know, podcast, whatever you need to do, just make sure that you are not withholding your (unintelligible) from the world because we have so many opportunities now.”

Diablo Cody
NPR transcript Feb  2009

I never would have dreamed that I’d write 823 posts in three years, but that’s what happened. The Writers Store has an article online that talks about Jerry Seinfeld’s method for success where he marks on a calender with a red “X” over everyday he writes new material. Each “X” forms a chain and his goal is to not break that chain. You want to talk a day or two off every week from writing, that’s fine (and healthy) but do your best to have at least 20 “X’s” on your calender each month.

Writers write.

Related Posts: Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)

Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt

The Juno—Iowa Connection

Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Scott W. Smith

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