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“It could have been much worse. That was the grateful mantra on the lips of many on Monday, even as an estimated 12 million Floridians prepared for a dark night without air conditioning in the muggy post-storm swelter.”
The Washington Post on Hurricane Irma 9.11.17

Courtesy of Hurricane Irma I spent 40 hours this week living off the grid in Orlando. There are much worse things than losing your power for two days in a hot and humid climate—say, like losing your entire house or having it partially submerged underwater like others in Florida, Texas, and the Caribbean recently.

I’ll share some photos and thoughts in the coming days, but with my electricity on hiatus I went through a mental purge. I can’t think of a time in the past decade where I was away from a phone, computer,  TV, etc. for so long.

It’s common during those unplugged moments to ask yourself questions like, “What’s really important to me?” and “What do I really need?” The Bible talks about being “content with food and clothing,” but we don’t live in a culture where that’s promoted or honored.

“Everything is amazing right now, and nobody’s happy.”
Comedian C.K. Louis

Be grateful for the little things. Senator Cory Booker’s dad grew up in poverty and told his son growing up, “If you were just born in America, you already won the lottery.”

And so despite learning about the new Apple iPhone X while I was off the grid, I’ve decided to try and be content with food and clothing—and my iPhone7 Plus.

It’s a start.

Well, food, clothing, my iPhone 7 Plus…and air-conditioning—that’s all I need.

So it was fitting that the first movie trailer I saw post-Hurricane Irma was for Alexander Payne’s new movie Downsizing. After being consumed with images and news reports of natural disasters for the past couple of weeks, seeing the trailer for that satire starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig looks to be the perfect synthesis of humor and philosophy needed for our times.

P.S. Downsizing screenwriters Payne and Jim Taylor seem to be tapping into that time honored Hollywood concept of “Give me the same thing, only different.” (Or, “I want something original, but familiar.”)  A fresh spin on a proven concept of miniaturizing people. Swimming in the same water as The Incredible Shrinking Man (1959),  Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989), The Borrowers (1997), Innerspace (1997), The Tooth Fairy (“Shrinking paste”) and Steve Martin’s 1974 comedy album Let’s Get Small. The fresh spin appears to be mixing it with themes of consumerism/materialism.

Scott. W. Smith

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This post first ran in October 2012 under the title, Jumping the Shark:

“Fonzie began as a secondary character with very few lines. When he started drawing so much focus, we had to adjust the scripts.”
Garry MarshallHappy Days creator

You can’t base a month of posts on Hollywood legend Garry Marshall without touching on one of the most popular TV shows he created—Happy Days. Especially, when his book is called My Happy Days in Hollywood. The show was not only a hit for 11 seasons in its first run, but helped coined one of the most popular phrases in television:

“People come up and ask me all the time about the phrase jumping the shark and if I find it offensive. The expression comes from a late episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie uses water skis to literally jump over a shark in the ocean. It was certainly not one of the shows I am most proud of. But I love the phrase jumping the shark and the way people use it today to signify a TV series nearing the end of its run. In 2009 I did a full stage tour of the Happy Days musical, which I wrote with Paul Williams and produced with Happy Days executive producers Bob Boyett and Tom Miller. One of the big jokes in the musical is when someone notices Fonzie is in a bad mood and says, ‘He hasn’t been the same since he jumped the shark.'”
Garry Marshall
My Happy Days in Hollywood (written with Lori Marshall)

I was in high school when that first aired and spent many happy days watching Henry Winkler, Ron Howard, Tom Bosley and the rest of the gang. Tomorrow we’ll look at the difficulties Marshall had in getting Happy Days produced, and why it was finally given a shot three years after it was written. When using the phrase jumping the shark in connection to Happy Days, it’s important to point out that Happy Days was one of the most viewed shows of its era.

P.S. According to Wikipedia, the phrase “jumping the shark” was created by Jon Hein, but if you dig a little deeper and read the LA Times article by Fred Fox Jr. you’ll see what Hein did was popularize the phrase that first came from his roommate at the University of Michigan, Sean Connolly, back in 1987 when they were sitting around drinking beer and talking about TV programs. For what it’s worth, 30 million people watched the original Jumping the Shark episode when it first aired on September 20, 1977. May all of your less than successful ideas be seen by 30 million people.

And that episode was actually in season five. Jumping the Shark doesn’t necessarily mean a show is dying. Happy Days had a six-year run after Fonzie and his leather jacket and hopped on a pair of water skis. After binge watching both Friday Night Lights and Mad Men in the past year, there were plenty of places where they both jumped the shark—both not only survived, but continued to find their way. The weekly demands on television writers and producers is tremendous—so give them a little grace before you dig their graves.

10/19/15 update: There’s a nice Fonzie reference in The Martian (starring Matt Damon), which as of this writing is still playing in theaters and has made over $300 million in the first 17 days of its release.

Related link: jumpingtheshark.com

Scott W. Smith

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Epiphany: A moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.
Merriam-Webster definition 

“Inside each and every one of us is our one, true authentic swing. Something we was born with. Something that’s ours and ours alone. Something that can’t be learned… something that’s got to be remembered.”
Bagger Vance (Will Smith)
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Screenplay by Indiana-born Jeremy Leven, from a novel by Trinidad-born Steve Pressfield

There’s a mystical side to golf where, along with various sand traps and water hazards, there are inner demons to battle. Since it’s Good Friday, I thought a scene from The Legend of Bagger Vance would be fitting*. (I think it was screenwriter Gary Ross who said Seabiscuit is not a sports film about victory but about life’s struggle. (Same could be said about Rocky and many other fine films)

In this Robert Redford directed scene, Will Smith helps golfer Matt Damon work through his inner and outer struggles.

P.S. Steve Pressfield who wrote the novel The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life is an avid golfer and counts screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Story) as his golfing buddy. He’s quoted as saying, “I’ve stolen concepts from Bob over and over and they’ve always worked. And he’s a pretty good golfer too.” He covers some of this ground in his book The War on Art. 

P.P.S. Bagger Vance screenwriter Jeremy Leven earned a graduate degree in Child Psychology from Harvard and was a fellow at Yale medical schools.

* In the book Gita on the Green: The Mystical Tradition Behind Bagger Vance by Steve Rosen (and a forward by Steve Pressfield) writes that Bagger Vance  was loosely based not  after the Christian tradition of light, but the ancient Hindu spiritual poem Bhagavad-Gita. But Pressfield is also Jewish so maybe we can say Bagger Vance, like The Shawshank Redemption and Groundhog Day, is more ecumenical than dogmatic.

Related posts:

Writing Quote #38 (Steve Pressfield)
“More Light”
‘Groundhog Day’ And Cheap Therapy
Screenwriting Quote #171 (Garry Marshall) Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.”
Screenwriting and Slavery to Freedom

Scott W. Smith

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“Most of the stuff that I’m looking forward to seeing is on TV now. Almost exclusively due to The Sopranos, there’s been a resurgence in long-form television. That’s great for someone like me, the ability to play out a narrative with a very long arc and explore complicated characters and have the audience be happy about that, it’s very enticing…We, the filmmakers, have got to start thinking differently….I never said I was done directing. I said I was going to stop making movies. I’m hopefully going to be doing a play this fall that Scott Burns wrote.”
Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh(Traffic)
May 2013 LA Times Article by Meredith Blake

P.S. Soderbergh’s film Behind the Candelabra starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon premieres Sunday on HBO, and he’s also exploring a whole different creative platform—painting.

Related posts:
Filmmaking Quote #36 (Being Platformagnostic)
Kevin Smith is Platformagnostic
Sex, Lies, & Mr. Bill (Screenwriting from Louisiana)

Scott W. Smith

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“A-B-C. A-Always, B-Be, C-Closing. Always be closing, always be closing.”
Blake (Alec Baldwin) in Glengarry Glen Ross


Do you remember Pete Jones? He’s the guy who was the first writer/director picked by Project Greenlight to have a movie made. He has a new movie out today called Hall Pass starring Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis. (Jones is credited as co-writer with Kevin Barnett, along with the Farrelly bothers from There’s Something About Mary fame.)

Ten years ago Jones was this guy in Chicago selling insurance and hoping to be one of the lucky ones chosen by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to have their script plucked from the Internet to be made into a movie. The result was the movie Stolen Summer. It was far from a blockbuster film, but it launched Jones’ career.

Back in ’03 or ’04 I met Jones in West Hollywood. I was in LA for a TV program I was producing and the cameraman on that shoot was Pete Biagi. Biagi is well-known in indie circles in Chicago and was the director of photography on Stolen Summer. So when we wrapped our shooting after a of couple of days Biagi called up Jones and a small group of us had dinner at the Formosa Cafe in West Hollywood.

The Formosa is one of those classic old Hollywood restaurants that’s been around since the ‘30s and whose guests over the years have included Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Johnny Depp and so on. The Formosa was also featured in the movies L.A. Confidential and The Majestic.

So I’m at this restaurant with this Chicago-connected gang and I’m the outsider from Orlando. So I don’t say much but I learned something important that night.

I asked Jones how many screenplays he had written before he got discovered on Project Greenlight. He said six. If you remember the HBO special made on the making of Stolen Summer you may recall how they played up the fact that Jones was an average Joe insurance salesman who wrote a script. I know people who call themselves screenwriters who haven’t written six scripts—I don’t know any average Joe salesmen who have written six screenplays.

Playing up that Jones was a salesman is called PR. Because everyone wants to think, “I could probably do that if I tried.” The fact is Jones was an insurance salesman, but he had also graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. (That school has turned out a lot of accomplished writers.) Keep in mind that he was in his early thirties when he was chosen for Project Greenlight. His sales training played a critical part of his success. Graduating from J-School couldn’t have hurt. But he still wrote six dang screenplays before being discovered.

You can pick up a used DVD set of the complete first season of Project Greenlight for under $10 on Amazon, and that’s a solid investment in getting a foundation of what it takes to make a film. I’ll go as far as to say that I think it’s the single best example on DVD I’ve ever seen of watching the entire filmmaking process unfold.

But my favorite part of Project Greenlight is when Affleck, Damon, producer Chris Jones and others have narrowed their selection down to three screenwriters. It’s late at night and after six hours of deliberations the producers have to finally make the call on what film they are going to spend a million dollars to make.

In desperation Affleck asked the sound guy working on shooting the HBO special who they should choose, and he says, “Pete. Pete’s the guy that’ll never get the chance unless you do it.” Miramax VP Jon Gordon jokes that they should just have the screenwriters wrestle for it.

What they do is bring the three finalists back individually to have them make a final pitch on why their script should be chosen.

That’s when Jones’ insurance sales background kicks in. Where the others talk about their story, Jones hits the producers emotions. He tells the group;

“It’s about making the best film. And I’m getting a little emotional and I shouldn’t be, but it’s about making the best film…and the HBO thing is great—I would personally love it. Call me narcissistic, but I enjoy that. That’s not what it’s about, it’s about you guys screwing the studio system and saying let’s make the best film. Market the film? F*#K you. Who cares? We’re making the best film, we’re putting out a million bucks. I don’t have a million bucks, but studios have some money and a million dollar budget is not going to crush them. So he’s let’s make the best film that we can make. And, obviously, I’m biased, I think my movie’s the best film to make. I think my film probably wouldn’t get made by a studio—by a big studio, you know? I think that Greenlight is the kind of project  that would make a film like this.  I’m not a Hollywood expert, so I don’t know—I’m just going on a stereotype here.”

You can tell by the faces of those in the room that it’s a done deal. Sold.  Damon and Affleck are either dead tired, stoned or mesmerized. Chris Jones says, “I don’t have any other questions after that answer. “ Remember people invest in passion. And the part where Jones says, “F*#K you. Who cares? —I’m pretty sure Jones was channeling Mamet/Baldwin from Glengarry Glen Ross. “Coffee’s for closers only.” Jones was a closer that day.

And that was the turning point in Pete Jones’ career. The man was good in a room. He understood the basic sales principles of features and benefits and hitting human emotions. Next thing you know Jones was directing Aidan Quinn and Bonnie Hunt.

The movie Stolen Summer had a limited theatrical release making only $140,000.  But Jones got to make another film. Oddly he chose to follow a kid film with the gay-themed movie Outing Riley (2004) which went direct to DVD. And the next year he sold the spec script Hall Pass for high six figures and it eventually, six years later, became the movie that opens in theaters today.

Everyone’s got a story, right? (Even if you haven’t seen Jones’ movies or like the ones you have seen, you have to appreciate his journey.)

The common recurring theme on this blog is Pete Jones did the leg work before he got a shot. He wrote six screenplays before he was discovered. Just like fellow Chicagoan screenwriter Diablo Cody, Jones had been writing for over a decade before his big break.  And he used that sales experience from his day job to sell Hollywood producers and actors that he was the right person to be chosen for Project Greenlight.

Related posts:

Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

Learning to be “Good in a Room.” (part 1)

Screenwriting Quote #87 (Ray Bradbury)

Stephen J. Cannell’s Work Ethic

Screenwriting da Chicago Way

Writing “Good Will Hunting

Scott W. Smith

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“At first the screenplay (Good Will Hunting) seemed perhaps a little wordy. As Matt (Damon) joked on the set when we shot the movie, the Good Will staging was usually two people sitting in chairs across from each other and talking. Only the backgrounds and the characters changed, and usually only one of the characters changed since Will is in virtually every scene. “
Director Gus Van Sant
Introduction to Good Will Hunting; A Screenplay

Perhaps the reason that Good Will Hunting has so many scenes of two people talking is that its writers (and co-stars), Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (then in their early 20s), wrote much of the screenplay with just the two of them driving a car across the country between Boston and LA.

“A lot of Good Will was written on such cross-county road trips. We tell each other stories while in a particular character, usually to make each other laugh or to make sure that Ben doesn’t nod off…So it sort of ups the ante as far as the story goes. When we both get into an improv that we both like, that we both think is going well and dialogue we are relatively excited by, I will open up the glove compartment where I keep a notebook and write down a few notes that we will use later to recall the entire improvisation.”
Matt Damon

Damon and Affleck won an Oscar in 1998 for their script. Best Writing. Check out this video as Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau present the award to the childhood friends turned actors/writers and eventually Hollywood superstars. Because over the years since then Damon and Affleck haven’t written another script together some speculated if they really wrote the script. Writers and directors from William Goldman, Kevin Smith to Rob Reiner have been mentioned at one time or another. But since Damon and Affleck’s careers took off after their early success, they probably haven’t had much time together for many cross-country roads trips. More recently Damon as mentioned a little help from an Oscar nominated director.

“We just asked if we could have a meeting with (Terrence Malick) . We went to Boston to see him. And we had it in the script that my character and Minnie’s left together at the end of the movie. Terry didn’t read the script but we explained the whole story to him, and in the middle of the dinner, he said, ‘I think it would be better if she left and he went after her.’ And Ben and I looked at each other. It was one of those things where you go: of course that ‘s better. He said it and he probably doesn’t even remember that he said it. He started talking about Antonioni. ‘In Italian movies a guy just leaves town at the end and that’s enough.’ And we said of course that’s enough. That’s where we come from. If you just leave that’s a big enough deal. It doesn’t have to build up to anything more.”
Matt Damon
Interview with Tom Shone

So you can add writer/director  Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up) to those said to have had a hand (a finger?) in making Good Will Hunting work. But there are only two names on that Oscar—Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. How does the expression go? Success has many fathers, but failure has no mother.

P.S. Four years after Good Will Hunting’s Oscar win, another story about another math genius with ties to Boston (A Beautiful Mind) won four Oscars including Best Screenplay and Best Picture. More movie cloning?

Related post: Writing “A Beautiful Mind”

Scott W. Smith

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Robert Rodat was born in Keene, New Hampshire and received his bachelor’s degree in history from Colgate University and a MBA from Harvard. That’s pretty solid credentials to start with, but just for good measure he added an MFA in Film from USC. (Seriously, how many screenwriters have an MBA? From Harvard nonetheless. Just one more writer with a Harvard background.)

He had a couple TV movie credits and wrote the feature Fly Away Home before earning an Oscar nomination for his Saving Private Ryan script. The film won a total of five Academy Awards including Steven Spielberg’s second best director Oscar.

In a New York Daily News article Denis Hamil writes that Rodat’s research for historical projects includes reading in the range of 30 books as well as journals and letters on the subject at hand.

In 2000, The Patriot staring Mel Gibson from a script by Rodat was released. Rodat at the time was quoted by Hamil saying;

“What interests me right now is big-canvas stories told from an intimate perspective. I like to find one small story within the larger picture and use that – not as a microcosm, but as an illustration. I don’t claim that Benjamin Martin, my main character in ‘The Patriot,’ says everything there is to say about the American Revolution. But the goal is to have one small, emotional and dramatic story about a complex character – with a matrix of people around him [who can transport] the audience to a different world and time.”

Didn’t Victor Hugo “find one small story within the larger picture”” when he wrote Les Miserables? Didn’t Tolstoy do the same in War & Peace ? Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind?  Michael Blake with Dances with Wolves? Keep that in mind if you are tackling a story of epic proportions. Think big and think small.

Though some of my info is dated, I believe Rodat lives in Massachusetts and is the screenwriter attached to the World of Warcraft movie that will be directed by Sam Raimi.

PS. Where was Private Ryan (Matt Damon’s character) from? Iowa. (Though an early version of the script has the Ryan farm in Mansfield, Ohio.) Here’s an example from Rodat’s script where you can see how he unpacks a sense of place. Quite a contrast from the chaotic Omaha Beach battle scenes toward the start of the film.

Related Post: Screenwriting from Hell (War movies and the five Sullivan Brother’s who were all killed on the same ship during World War II.)

Scott W. Smith

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