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Darling trotted back, smiling, breathing deeply but easily, feeling wonderful, not tired, though this was the tail end of practice and he’d run eighty yards.
The Eighty-Yard Run by Irwin Shaw
First published in Esquire magazine on January 1941

This is how my dedication page reads to my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles:

To Annye Refoe, Ph.D.
—who pointed the way beyond the The Eighty-Yard Run.

That’s a reference to Irwin Shaw’s classic short story The Eighty-Yard Run. I had Annye as a creative writing teacher in high school where I directed my first video. Then again in a literature class my first year of college.

That’s where I first read the story about Christian Darling who in his mid-30s hadn’t quite found a life beyond his days playing college football. The peak of his life being an eighty-yard run in practice read like a cautionary tale to this 19-year-old student. (Just as the Hoop Dreams doc would for others later.)

Annye graduated from Fisk University in Nashville took her role as a teacher seriously. She was simply the best teacher I ever had and opened my eyes to the world in so many ways. From showing the class the films An Occurrence at Owl Creek and A Raisin in the Sun to reading Zora Neale Hurston and The Eighty-Yard Run I was shown a world where words and images could impact people.

The year prior to reading The Eighty-Yard Run I had been an All-conference and All-county wide receiver in high school, but at 5’8″ and 150 pounds (and, ahhh, not having very good grades) I didn’t get any scholarship offers. So I went to community college and got an A.A. degree in one year with a B average. Lifted some weights, grew an inch taller, and walked-on to the football team at the University of Miami in the fall of 1981. (Still have a nice letter from legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger.)

I could write a whole book on my short time there (or at least an interesting George Plimpton-inspired Sports Illustrated article), but it had a painful ending. One practice I cracked back on a linebacker and felt by shoulder shift a little. A few plays later I was blocking a defensive back and my shoulder popped out.

Looking back, it ended up being a key turning point in my life. The end of my old life, and the start of a new one. (Which is actually a pretty good synopsis of the best movies, television, and streaming programs.) Here’s how I start my first chapter in the book on conflict:

“Get that f—ing walk-on off the field was how my short-lived football career ended at the University of Miami back in 1981. I’d dislocated my shoulder on the pervious play in practice and was hunched over frozen-like and favoring my twisted left arm. I had surgery, put down my helmet for good, and picked up a camera.

One thing football and screenwriting have in common is they are both full of conflict. Screenwriting’s mantra should be “Conflict—Conflict—Conflict.” It’s why I chose to start this book with conflict rather than structure, character, or plot. Major conflict often happens early in a movie:   

E.T. misses his space ride.

Juno discovers she’s pregnant.

Rocky loses his boxing gym locker.

A barracuda kills Nemo’s mother and siblings.

About as close as I got to any Hurricane glory was breathing the same locker room air as Jim Kelly (who went on to have a Pro Football Hall of Fame career). Though I did have an exceptionally good practice once where future UM star Stanley Shakespeare told a coach he should start me for the next JV game against Florida State.

I never made it to the next game, and finished the semester with my left arm in a sling. (Shot my first 8mm film that semester with wearing that arm sling.) It really wasn’t a career ending injury, but I just felt it was time to move on and focus on getting my film degree. The great thing about conflict and pain is it can lead to growth and a new direction. (How many of your favorite stories have that as a theme?)

A fun twist to this story is Chuck Scott who I played football with at Lake Howell High School went on to play for Vanderbilt before getting drafted by the L.A. Rams in 1985. A year after graduating from film school I was working as a photographer for Yary Photography in Southern California and not only had the opportunity to take the Rams team photo, but to reconnect with Chuck.

Chuck’s son Caleb also played at Vanderbilt and just this week signed with the Green Bay Packers to be on their practice squad. And lastly, actor Scott Porter (Friday Night Lights) and former NFL player and current TV host Brandon Marshall also played wide receiver at Lake Howell High School.

P.S. I was thankful to do rehab on my shoulder with UM trainer Mike O’Shea and his staff. In writing this post I saw that O’Shea retired last year from the University of Houston where he was the head trainer. Pro QB Case Keenum—who when he left the University of Houston was NCAA’s all-time leader in total passing yards, touchdowns, and completions— credits O’Shea with not only keeping him healthy in college, but helping him develop as a person. And Mike’s son Chad O’Shea is currently the wide receiver coach for the Cleveland Browns, and was WR coach for the New England Patriots for three of their Super Bowl wins.

Scott W. Smith

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As I watched the Miami Hurricanes football team beat Florida State on Saturday I smiled when I saw the new brass knuckles-like rings that Miami used to celebrate to touchdowns this year.

Here’s the preface to my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles. The book is kind of a greatest hits of the more than 3,000 blog posts I’ve written. Please consider buying a the eBook or paperback as a way to support what I’ve been doing here since 2008. (And starting today, I’m going to make it my goal to go back to blogging daily through the rest of 2020.)

PREFACE

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

“I wrote screenplays as a way to get into production. I wrote six or seven before I sold one.”
—Lawrence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars: Episode V)

In the more than 12 years of writingthe 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 and curate the most powerful of that 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 were more limited.  (Rocky Johnson was actually the 1976 NWA Brass Knuckles Champion.)

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, André the Giant, and Dusty “The American Dream” Rhodes and it was flat out entertaining. (Rhodes was the main influence Hulk Hogan used as Hulkamania helped transform pro wrestling into a global phenomenon.)

Inevitably, back then when one wrestler was getting beat up and close to losing a match, brass knuckles would magically appear (usually emerging from someone’s wrestling trunks).

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 fake 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 is one of the reasons why I break from transitional conventions of making a differentiation between a screenwriter and a TV writer. What do we call someone who writes for Netflix? A streaming writer? So I just call anyone who writes for something to be viewed on a screen (big screen, little screen, TV, computer, iPad, mobile phone)—I call them a screenwriter.

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 tell your own stories.

P.S. The linage of Dusty Rhodes, to Hulk Hogan, to Dwayne Johnson is rather amazing when you think they all have roots to Tampa, Florida.

File this under, it’s a small world: A longtime production friend of mine, Randy Baker, worked with Hulk Hogan on the show Hogan Knows Best and actually was a key person in encouraging me to purchasing my first camera back in 2003. Baker teaches at Full Sail and is currently working on a low budget feature.

Scott W. Smith

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“When I decided to continue to coach, I really did want to enjoy it. I really did want to have fun. And what better place than Miami can you have some fun? Gosh, it’s just been a blast.”
University of Miami head Coach Mark Richt
USA Today  (11/12/17)

(I’ll continue my run of posts on The Florida Project movie tomorrow, but give me a minute to talk about The Other Florida Project.)

Hurricane Mark is the main reason that Miami is ranked #2 in the Amway Coaches Poll this week. I never would have guessed that UM would be sitting next to the powerhouse Alabama team in November 2017. But as a fan I’m thrilled about it.

When University of Miami head coach Mark Richt (and former UM QB) was fired from the University of Georgia a couple of years ago there was not a Hurricane fan in the know who didn’t want Richt to return to his Alma mater.

The glory had long departed the program that had won five national championships between 1983-2001. My hopes was that UM would be back in the top ten on a regular basis in 3-5 years. Richt and his staff and players have made them into a national contenders in just two years.

And one of the fun things about watching the Hurricanes play this year is the five and a half pound sapphire-studded turnover chain that is draped around every Hurricane on defense that gets a fumble or an interception. Just a symbolic way to bring the swagger back to Miami. I can imagine what that imagery (and of course, the winner) is going to do for high school recruiting this season.

This won’t win me any points with Fighting Irish fans, but here are the highlights of the game yesterday when Miami defeated the favored Notre Dame team. After 15 years of traveling a bumpy road, allow a Hurricane fan to enjoy a moment of contentment.

Hurricane Irma.jpg

Smiling after Hurricane Irma only grazed Orlando in September, and hopeful for a decent season for the University of Miami football team

Related posts:
Postcard #24 (Coral Gables)
A24, the 305, the 407…and Drake
Miami Vs. Florida
#GetWellJimKelly

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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