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Posts Tagged ‘MFA’

“If you’re just some dude or dude-ette from Oklahoma with a dream of seeing your name in lights, know that you’re one of millions.”
Internet post by leinbl00

“I graduated with an MFA from UCLA. The odds I heard were that only 1 in 5 of us would have any appreciable career. I graduated 5 years ago. I’m the most successful (so far) in my class, with one script bought and made, one webseries delivered to the web and one further indie feature that I co-produced now reaching the festival circuit — but all my success only puts me on the lowest tier of the Hollywood game. I’m still struggling… I’m still broke.”
Internet post by Riter

This morning I came across an exchange on Reddit (via the blog Complications Ensue) and I’m not sure of the original source, but I found it interesting. This was the original question posted somewhere online:

Q.) I was just wondering what it’s like being a struggling writer in LA. What’s the day to day life like? How do you make ends meet, do you wait tables at night and write during the day? I’m not asking specifically for people who have sold scripts, but anyone who is really struggling to find work in the business, or has already.

Here is the abridged “realistic but not quite cynical” answer from a longer thread by  someone who goes by kleinbl00;

“I’ve optioned two scripts. I’ve made enough money at it to be ineligible for the Nicholl. I’ve seen some of my work show up on the big screen. I count among my friends some exceedingly pro screenwriters, a few struggling directors, a couple producers, and storyboard artists, makeup artists, art directors and concept designers whose work you have seen dozens of times. I’m hip-pocketed at one of the Big 5 and have, in the past, had offers of representation by managers you see prominently on the Black List.

I make ends meet by mixing sound.

If you’re a screenwriter with a hope and a dream out there in Middle America, STAY THERE. The screenwriting-as-hobby sphere of influence (lookin’ at you, Austin Film Festival) will have you believe that “if you write it, they will come.” What they don’t tell you is that USC, UCLA, Cal Arts, Loyola, AFI, Claremont and half a dozen smaller programs are turning out hundreds of grads a year, who already have the connections you need to make, who have already learned the lessons you need to learn, and are already going to the parties you wish you could attend.”

What’s it like being a struggling writer in LA? It’s like being one goose in an unwanted sea of geese. When there’s just a few of you you’re magnificent, marvelous birds… but when there’s as many of you as there are in LA, it’s like being a public health menace and knowing it.

My intent, when I made the move down to LA, was to get into the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC. And I got a 1530 on my GREs, and I’d written 5 screenplays, and I had a letter of recommendation from one of the biggest screenwriters in modern Hollywood, and they told me to pound sand. I was good’n’pissed about that for a while.But I came down and I started mixing and I landed on a pretty big show. And the guy who changed the coffee and made sure we had enough snacks in the breakroom and did whatever scut work the producers told him to do? MFA, Peter Stark Producer’s Program, USC.*

And with that cue Albert Hammond‘s great and timeless song It Never Rains in Southern California

Bottom line—Don’t Waste Your Life, and don’t bitch about how hard it is to sell a screenplay until you’ve invested 10,000 hours in writing, and know that every once in a while someone in the fly-over states actually separates themselves from the rest of the geese.

* Don’t bet against the USC person who spent $100,000 on his MFA and is currently working 18 hours days on a set making minimum wage. He or she is not unemployed, they are educated, and they’re making plenty of contacts—and I’m guessing he/she is hungry and has passion. (And with overtime still brings home enough a month to more than cover their part of the rent of the small apartment they share with other PAs in Koreatown.)

Scott W. Smith


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“There are an awful lot of Scott Smiths running around the world.”
                                                                          Scott B. Smith
                                                                          Writer, A Simple Plan, The Ruins 

Years ago when I lived in Burbank I received a phone call asking if I was “the editor Scott Smith.”  Now I was working at a production company as an editor (as well as director, 16mm cameraman, and writer) but I knew the person was talking about the other Scott Smith. In this case, M. Scott Smith the one who edited To Live and Die in L.A.

 

There’s always another Scott Smith. In fact. if you look on IMDB there are 55 Scott Smiths listed working on various productions. (At least at this point I’m the only Scott W. Smith.)  If the stars lined up someday I could make a film with an entire crew members named Scott Smith. Really I could—and it would be a nice marketing angle. And it really would be “A Scott Smith film.”  

There are Scott Smiths as producer, director, cinematographer, sound recordist, boom operator, actor, visual effects, editor, production assistant, composer, grip, set dresser, and make-up. There is even a character named Scott Smith in Milk. (And another Scott Smith has written a book on film called The Film 100.)

And, of course, there is the screenwriter Scott B. Smith. Armed with an MFA from the writing program at Columbia University the Sylvania, Ohio native came on the scene as a 28-year-old bestselling novelist with his first book A Simple Plan. Then Hollywood came calling and he not only sold the rights to the book but wrote the screenplay for the movie as well (making a lot of money along the way). The film version directed by Sam Raimi was shot in Wisconsin and Minnesota and released in 1998. The reviews were good and it would earn Smith an Academy Award nomination. 

But it did not find an audience making less than its $17 million budget.  It would be another 10 years before he would have another movie produced—The Ruins which was based on his only other published novel. Though the novel and the movie were hailed by Stephen King the movie version failed to find box office success. Who knows if we’ll hear from Smith for another 10-12 years?

But according to various reports and interviews Smith has been writing all along, on a novel he abandoned and on scripts that have either gone unproduced or he didn’t do enough script doctoring to receive a credit. He’s a talented writer with a following and he’ll pop up again. Given the nature of his success in writing thrillers you may be surprised who he credits with teaching him how to write screenplays:

“Ben (Stiller) really taught me how to write a script. I don’t know that he ever explicitly said it, but by imagining the script as a verbal description of a movie, the movie that I wanted the book to be. That’s very simple, but it really was the key to everything for me—just imagining what was on the page. I was shortchanging the visual in my script (A Simple Plan), concentrating on dialogue, which I imagine is a very common first-time screenwriter’s mistake, and to suddenly just do it visually opened up everything for me.”
                                       Scott B. Smith
                                       screenwriter, A Simple Plan, The Ruins
                                      
Quoted in Screen Plays by David S. Cohen
                                       page 273-274 

 
Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

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“I finally figured out we are somewhere between the end of the line and the middle of nowhere.”
Dr. Joel Fleischman
Northern Exposure

Goethe’s final words: “More light.” Ever since we crawled out of that primordial slime, that’s been our unifying cry: “More light.” Sunlight. Torchlight. Candlight. Neon. Incandescent. Lights that banish the darkness from our caves, to illuminate our roads, the insides of our refrigerator.”

Chris in Morning
KBHR, Cicely, Alaska
Northern Exposure

When Sarah (Barracuda) Palin was chosen as John McCain’s running mate it was textbook solid screenwriting inspired. A nice twist in the story. If it were a movie and she ends up VP I’d call it Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington. Kind of a remake of the Jimmy Stewart classic.

How do you offset the first African-American presidential candidate who makes his acceptance speech before more than 80,000 people at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on 45th anniversary to the day of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech? How do you offset Obama being raised by a single mom and forgoing a Wall Street career to do social work on the south side of Chicago?

How do you take advantage of millions of women who are upset that Hillary Clinton is not the presidential or VP candidate? How does McCain avoid being seen as just rich and elitist and out of touch with the countries economic problems?

You head north…to Alaska, that’s what you do. You choose their female governor as your running mate.  A “hockey mom” with five kids (pro-family)  including one with Downs Syndrome (pro-life) , a moose hunter (NRA), whose husband is part Yup’ik Eskimo (multiethnic) and a commercial fisherman (working class) and union worker (union), whose parents were teachers (middle class), who has faith (evangelicals), who has brought reform to government there (change), who fought the “bridge to nowhere” (fiscally responsible), whose son joined the Army last year on September 11 (patriotism), and who comes from an area more than 3,500 miles from Washington D.C. (beltway outsider).

As a former broadcaster she is media savvy and can read a teleprompter. And her selection as the first VP GOP candidate came on the 88th anniversary of women being allowed to vote. And to top it off the former Miss Wasilla has the whole sexy librarian thing going on with the glasses and wearing her hair up.

I’ll leave it to others to debate whether she’s qualified for the White House, but there is no debate she has a heck of a story. And stories outside L.A. is what this blog is all about.

Is choosing Palin a Hail Mary pass by McCain? If so, he’s old enough to remember when Doug Flutie’s desperation pass beat the mighty Miami Hurricanes back in ’84. Sometimes the high risk pass works.

And for the media, picking Palin is a slice of Hollywood. A political narrative full of conflict. Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Palin’s candidacy “will be either dramatically successful or dramatically not; it won’t be something in between.”

We know screenwriter Gary Ross (Big, Seabiscuit) has written presidential speeches for the Democrats. The talent pool of Republican or conservative screenwriters is not quite as deep (99 to 1?), but I wonder what writer or filmmaker they’ve employed. (Perhaps John Milius, Clint Eastwood, Dennis Hopper or David Mamet.)

Maybe it was Hillary’s Hollywood people (Spielberg or Murphy Brown creator Diane English)  suggestion since a Republican victory is Mrs. Clinton’s only chance to make a run in ’12.

No matter the outcome of the election, from a dramatic standpoint McCain couldn’t have written a better script. Well, Palin could have been born in Cedar Falls, Iowa to an African-American mother and a Hispanic father and have captured Bigfoot last week–but let’s not get carried away.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

Alaska has been at the heart of many good stories as well as being full of folklore. Say, did you hear the “Little known facts” about Palin? “The Northern Lights are really just the reflection from Sarah Palin’s eyes.” “Sarah Palin doesn’t need a gun to hunt. She has been known to throw a bullet through an adult bull elk.” (Do you know how long it took for Chuck Norris to get that kind of street cred? She did it in one day.)

On second thought, Sarah Palin appears to have more in common with Erin Brockovich than she does Jimmy Stewart. (“You may want to re-think those ties.” Erin, in the movie written by Susannah Grant.) But let’s get back to Alaska.

Stories do flow from Alaska; Jack London’s Call of the Wild, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, Never Cry Wolf, and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia written by Hilary Seltz , Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, Johnny Horton’s number one hit North to Alaska, documentaries by Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North)  and Warner Herzog (Grizzly Man) and more recently the Sean Penn movie Into the Wild from the Jon Krakauer book.

But my favorite set of stories that are Alaska-based is what I think of as one of the all-time great TV programs – Northern Exposure. (In my book it’s right up there with The Twilight Zone and Seinfeld.) Though the show was filmed in Roslyn, Washington it retains the feel of a small eccentric, creative town you’d like to think exists in Alaska. Some say it is based on the quirky little town of Talkeetna, Alaska and others say the quirky town of Ely, Minnesota, a town near the Canadian border in the Boundary Waters.

In part because of my love for the show I’ve been to  Roslyn, Talkeetna and Ely. (However, I’ve never been to Moosefest.)  I do think the show Northern Exposure in part lead me to Cedar Falls, Iowa. Growing up in Florida steeped on Jimmy Buffett’s songs about Key West, the Caribbean, and paradise mixed with a heavy dose of Walt Disney’s version of Main Street, I think I have always been looking for my own personal Margaritaville. (A place where “My old red bike gets me ’round.”)

Even if you didn’t get into Northern Exposure you’d have to give it points for originality. Where else in the history of TV have you seen two people arm wrestle over the doctrine of transubstantiation or see someone have a conversation with a human-sized dust mite? And isn’t there a little spunky Maggie O’Connell (Janie Turner) in Palin? Yes, Palin even owns a float plane. I’m sure Noexers (as fans of the show are called) have already connected John & Cindy McCain with the older/younger couple Shelly & Holling.

Is it more than a coincidence that one of the co-creators of Northern Exposure went to college just a little over an hour from Cedar Falls? John Falsey is one more MFA graduate from the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. The Emmy, Peabody, Golden Globe winning producer/writer also worked on St. Elsewhere, The White Shadow and I’ll Fly Away. (I don’t know much of what he’s done in the last decade. “Where have you gone John Falsey?” Maybe he cashed in and moved to his own personal Cicely, Alaska.)

And I guess this blog is my own little version of Northern Exposures resident radio DJ Chris in the Morning (John Corbett). Trying to do my best to wax philosophically while making odd connections.

Cedar Falls is a little bigger than Cicely Alaska, but it’s got enough characteristics to feel similar and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than Key West, FL, Seal Beach, CA, or Crested Butte, CO. No oceans or mountains here (though we do have a river and killer bike trails) but we have a perfect view of the political process as I pointed out in Politics, Power & Screenwriting.

I’m sure will see plenty of Mrs. Palin which will make up for all the times I saw Obama last year. (I think the guy was stalking me.) If John McCain and Sarah Palin don’t make it to the White House I think they could have shots at a career in Hollywood. At least a reality show.

And whoever is our next president I wish they add to their packed political campaign platform a decree for films to be better. Yesterday I walked out of two movies in one day for the first time in my life. On second thought, that’s really not the government’s job–it’s yours, so get busy writing.

And just to tie this all together as we say goodbye for now you might not know that the beautiful, haunting song that was played at the end of the last episode of Northern Exposure was written and performed by Iris DeMent — a folk artist who is married to another folk artist named Greg Brown from Iowa City and where I believe they both now live.

If you’ve never heard “Our Town” or if it’s been a while since you’ve heard it, do yourself a favor and listen to the link below. The song resonates every bone of my body and I hope it hits a nerve or two for you. (And if you’ve never seen the show at all check it out because it is a fine example of great writing.)

September 4 Update: From a public speaking perspective you’d have to pull for an Obama-Palin ticket. Palin: “The difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?.. Lipstick.” Great writing and great delivery. All of this reminds me of that great Jon Stewart quip at the 2008 Oscars: “Normally when you see a black man or a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty.”

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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