Posts Tagged ‘Memphis’

I’m going to Graceland
In Memphis,Tennessee
Paul Simon/Graceland

“Elvis loved his John Deere [tractor].”
Elvis’ Aunt


Graceland Wall #1

I’m fascinated that people are fascinated by Elvis. And though touring inside Graceland was never really on my bucket list, I was glad to have the opportunity to explore the famous Memphis home of The King of Rock-n-Roll on Tuesday. Sure it’s gaudy in places (green shag carpet on the floor—and even the ceiling— in the jungle room) but this was Elvis of the ’70s. More Vegas than Memphis.

Elvis pool room

Elvis living room

And while in today’s scope the house and grounds seem modest for a star. Perhaps that’s because last year I did that shoot at NFL great Deion Sanders’ 28,000+ sq. foot Dallas home (on 100 acres).  In one sense touring Graceland is like looking at the first 8-track player in a museum. You think, “I’m sure that was state of the art back in the day, but it doesn’t look that amazing now.”

Then you realize that Elvis bought the house when he was just 22-years-old, and just a few years before that he was living in public housing and boarding houses with his parents—and that can give you a fresh perspective. From his first hit until his death in 1977, Graceland was home. (Even though he lived in Beverly Hills during his moviemaking days, he always called Memphis and Graceland home.)  Now it’s kitsch heaven with a gift store at every turn, with everything you can buy from Elvis mugs and t-shirts to Elvis Christmas ornaments and wallets.

But what I’ll always appreciate about Elvis was his talent, his energy, and his music.  In touring Graceland and getting a sweeping overview of his life I think the real fascination I have with Elvis is that question, “What do you do after you’ve accomplished all your grand dreams?” (Or in Elvis’ case where he said he had realized his dream 100 times over.) Then what happens? After all the money, fame, and women, Elvis headed down a destructive path and didn’t live long enough to reinvent himself.

When Elvis toured in the final year of his life he was overweight and out of shape, no longer the movie star, was playing much smaller musical venues than just a few years earlier, and addicted to prescription drugs. When Elvis died at age 42, if various reports are true, he was not a man at peace with his great accomplishments.

But time has been good to the memory of Elvis. His iconic statue is intact. Thankfully he’s remembered for his music, his generosity, and for being the single best-selling musician of all time.  And more fascinating to me than touring inside Graceland is the wall outside Graceland. And it’s free. In fact, you don’t even have to pay for parking. They have a lane dedicated on Elvis Presley Blvd. where you can park and sign the wall and take a few pictures.

Elvis wall

I did learn one interesting fact on the tour that has a nice Iowa connection. In the section where they have some of Elvis’ cars they have a John Deere tractor. A video said that it was one of his favorite toys. The tractor was used for many years to take care of the beautiful grounds at Graceland. The video also made a point of saying that the John Deere tractor was made at Waterloo Works in Waterloo, Iowa.

I started writing this blog is 2008 about ten miles from that factory. This post is just one more example of embracing your limitations and seeing the unusual places it takes you.

Elvis tractor

What did we do before the internet? Here’s some rare footage of Elvis and what looks like an International Harvester tractor. (Elvis spread the love around and didn’t limit himself to Pink Cadillacs and green tractors.)

P.S. Found out that the Elvis tractor was restored by students at Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia, Mississippi. (Article: Restoring Elvis’ tractor.)

Related post:

“God is the Bigger Elvis”

Scott W. Smith

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When I was walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Marc Cohn/Walking in Memphis

BealeStreetLate Monday night I stopped in Memphis to eat dinner on Beale Street expecting it to be a very light crowd—but the action was in full swing. Turns out the Memphis Grizzlies had just finished their NBA game and people were pouring onto Beale Street. Though the music has changed some you can imagine a teenage Elvis Presley walking down the same street being inspired by the music and dress of the performers there back in the late ’40s and early ’50s. Would there be an Elvis without Beale Street?


But not without Memphis, and not without the Blues music that flowed to the city from the Mississippi Delta.

If you’re ever just driving through Memphis it’s worth a stop to take in Beale Street. Just last month Beale Street was named “Best Iconic Street” in America in a USA TODAY Poll.

And since this is a blog on movies I thought I’d find a list of movies shot in Memphis. Here a list I found by Teresa R. Simpson.

1) Castaway
2) Hustle and Flow
3) The Client
4) Walk the Line
5) 21 Grams
6) The Firm
7) Great Balls of Fire
8) Forty Shades of Blue
9) The People Vs. Larry Flint
10) The Rainmaker

Since John Grisham has three films on that listed from his books—and he used to live and work in Memphis—I thought I pick my favorite of that bunch to showcase. Check out The Firm if you haven’t seen it.

P.S. BTW—I had a shrimp po-boy which is something you should try if you’re not from the South, have never had one, and visit there sometime. Also, hope you enjoy my subtle visual wink in the Beale Street photo that took a little work to time right to give it the Marc Cohn tie-in. Keeps life interesting.

Related Posts:
The Elvis of Screenwriting?
Screenwriting Quote #93 ( John Grisham)
Postcard #51 (Cotton Fields)
Postcard #47 (Tupelo)

Scott W. Smith

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“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
John LennonDSC_1067

If you want proof that big things can come from somewhat small and unlikely places I have just two words to share; Tupelo. Elvis.

According to the website for the birthplace of Elvis Presley here’s the history behind the building above I photographed Saturday afternoon in Tupelo:

Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935 to Vernon and Gladys Presley. Born in a two-room house built by his father, grandfather and uncle, Elvis was one of twin brothers born to the Presleys. His brother, Jessie Garon was stillborn. Elvis grew up in Tupelo surrounded by his extended family including his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Financially, times were hard on Vernon and Gladys, and they had to move out of the house where Elvis was born when he was only a few years old for lack of payment.

Elvis and his family moved to Memphis when Elvis was a teenager and they lived in boarding houses and public housing until Elvis graduated from Humes High School in 1953. In 1953 he paid to record a couple of songs at Sun Records, and soon afterwards people were paying him to record. His first RCA single, Heartbreak Hotel, was a number one hit and his families financial problems were over. (In fact, even though Elvis died in 1977, his estate still makes $50 million a year.)

Depending on what source you use Elvis sold an estimated one billion albums. He also made 31 movies including Jailhouse Rock (1957) written by Guy Trosper and Nedrick Young.

Elvis said that his favorite film he made was King Creole (1958) written by Herbert Baker and Michael V. Gazzo based on the novel A Stone for Danny Fisher written by Harold Robbins. (Robbins also wrote the novel The Carpetbaggers, which became the film Nevada Smith—one of the inspirations for the Indiana Jones character.)

But remember before he came one of the top icons of the 20th century, Elvis had humble beginnings it that little house in Tupelo.

Scott W. Smith

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



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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Adam & Eve
Cain & Abel
King David
St. Augustine
Martin Luther
John Calvin
Mother Theresa
Jim Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos & Text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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