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”All creative work is mystical.”
—Screenwriter John Milius (Apocalypse Now)

”Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves lacking.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche
(As quoted in the chapter ”Effort Counts Twice” in the book Grit by Angela Duckworth)

Last night I watched the four part series They Call Me Magic about one of greatest basketball players in NBA history. This was the Magic Johnson quote that jumped out at me about his dedication for the game as a youth and teenager growing up playing pickup games in Lansing, Michigan:

“I played [basketball] in the rain. I played in the snow, it didn’t matter. Sun up to sun down. And then I started playing against older boys, then I started playing against men. . . Nobody outworked me in the neighborhood. I was on the court more than any kid. It wasn’t even close. I wanted it more.”
—Magic Johnson

The reason that quote jumped out as at me is because I’ve been listening to the audio book Grit by Angela Duckworth. Just a few days ago in the chapter titled ”Effort Counts Twice,” Duckworth addressed greatness in Olympic athletes whose talent seem otherworldly. (Think of swimmers Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps.)

She points to an study of competitive swimmers titled “The Mundanity of Excellence,” by sociologist Dan Chambliss who observed;

“Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and them are fitted together in a synthesized whole. There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in any one of those actions; one the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produces excellence.”

How old do you think Magic Johnson was when he threw his first no-look pass? I’m gusessing pretty young. And before that become one of his trademark plays, I’m sure that small skill was well honed by thousands of passes before he put on a professional uniform.

I was a better than average football and baseball player as a youth, but when I joined my first basketball team when I was 12 I was instantly out of my league with kids who grew up around the game. Magic Johnson was the youngest of nine brothers and sisters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if when he was 12 years old he didn’t already have a decade of experience around the game.

Back to Duckworth’s book:

“With everything perfect,” Nietzsche wrote, “we do not ask how it came to be.” Instead, “we rejoice in the present fact as though it came out of the ground by magic.”

But Magic wasn’t really created from magic. Or fully formed. How did he come to be Magic Johnson? He told us in that first quote. He was created from the mundane task of showing up to play pickup games in the the rain, and snow, sun up to sun down. Determined to win, because winners got to stay on the court. And win he did. Here’s what he accomplished before he turned 21 years old:

Everett High School, State champs & Parade First Team All American (1977)
Michigan State, NCAA champs & All American (1979)
Los Angeles Lakers, NBA Champs & NBA Finals MVP (1980)

Astonishing. And not only that, but Magic changed the game. He lead the team that made the NBA popular. The NBA Finals in 1980 weren’t even broadcast live, but aired on tape delay because CBS didn’t want to spoil the ratings of Duke of Hazards. (In 1980, Dukes of Hazard was the #2 Tv show in the United States with an estimated audience of over 21 million. About twice as many viewers of even the 2021 NBA Finals.)

But Magic and his Lakers teammates “Showtime”style of play throughout the 1980s (along with the Boston Celtics rivialry) made basketball mainstream in the United States in a way it had never been. And paved the way for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to take it to even a greater level of global popularity. And if you just saw Jordan in his prime—flying in the air—you’d swear it was a mystical experience. But when you read his story, you know he may have been the most determined person to ever play basketball.

Michael Jordan = Grit. (Of course, in basketball, it also helps if you’re 6’6″ like Jordan, or 6’9″ like Johnson.)

On page 211 of my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles, I touched on what I called the mystical aspects of creativity. The unexplained aspects. I even quoted Jimmy Buffett who said that even though he wasn’t the greatest singer or guitar player he was able to “capture the magic” in his songs and concerts. But now I’m thinking Buffett was full of grit. Still performing and touring as he approaches 75, he cut his chops playing on the streets of New Orleans and working his way up to clubs, then colleges, then larger concert venues, on his way to playing stadiums.

As I update my book, I’m going to revisit that section. I’m thinking that grit is a cousin of The 10,000 Rule.

P.S. My first paid job when I was in film school in the early ’80s was with Broadcast Equipment Rental Company (BERC) in Hollywood. My primary job was to drive Ikegami cameras to various production companies and TV studios throughout Southern California. I never got to make a delivery to the Forum where the Lakers played, but I know they did sometimes supply cameras to ESPN who covered games. But I did get a glimpse (thanks to a security guard) of the empty stage of The Tonight Show at NBC in Burbank back when Johnny Carson was the host. Here’s a clip of when Magic Johnson was on the show after he won his third NAB championship in 1985.

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles


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“My mentality was to go out and win—at any cost.”
—Basketball great Michael Jordan
The Last Dance

“The same thing that made Michael Jordan a star will make your character stand out from the run of the mill, and attract the actors you want and need. Make sure your main character wants something very much, and has a goal. He or she should face problems, obstacles, and conflict to achieve that. And after achieving it, or failing, the character is changed, or the direction of his or her life is changed, or both. For nearly all endings are new beginnings—the first day of the rest of your life. Even Donald Duck and Woody Woodpecker run off to a new future at the end. And, I repeat, make all of that clear to your audience, but without bludgeoning them. Clarity with subtlety, with artistry, is the ideal combination.”
—Producer Lawrence Turman (The Graduate)
So You Want to Be a Producer
Page 87

P.S. In my book Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles I point out how screenwriters Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet don’t agree on everything, but when they do pay close attention. Here’s where they both agree with Turman’s “Make sure your main character wants something very much, and has a goal.”

I have to stick—really closely, like it’s a life raft— to intention and obstacles. Just the basics of somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it.” 
—Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)

“Drama has rules. We’re given a premise. The hero wants something. To find the cause of the plague on Thebes, or to free the Jews, or to establish civil rights, or to fly the Atlantic. We get it. We are going to follow his or her journey until the end. And the end is going to be surprising—and inevitable. Just like in a great football game.”
—Screenwriter/ Playwright David Mamet  (The Verdict)
MasterClass/Purpose of Drama

This post touched on basketball and football, and tomorrow’s post I’ll give a nod to baseball great Joe Morgan who died on Sunday. One of my biggest inspirations as a kid.

Scott W. Smith

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“You’re going to get knocked down a lot. But you got to get back up.”
—Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly
(Good advice in football, and in life.)

Talent is talent. It doesn’t matter if it’s college football players or Hollywood filmmakers. I’m calling it the talent tree, but others have used the pyramid analogy.

It both cases the smallest part of the tree/pyramid is at the top (where the most talented and accomplished hang out), there’s a thick middle, and a wide (crowded) lower section.

In a few days the #7 ranked University of Miami football team plays top ranked Clemson University. Without drilling to deep into that game since this is a screenwriting blog, let me just say that if Miami upsets Clemson it will be the school’s biggest victory in over a decade—maybe since 2002.

There will be a lot of talent on display including Clemson’s QB Trevor Lawrence who is expected to be a number one NFL draft pick and Miami’s D’Eriq King. It’s not a stretch to say that whoever wins this game at quarterback has a solid shot at the Heisman Trophy (for the top NCAA player of the year).

One of the things that makes college and professional football so popular is hierarchies are decided on the field. Sure there’s occasional politics and various metrics you can tweak, but as my old high school football coach Sammy Weir used to say, “The cream rises to the top.” Here’s what that looks like in the arena of football:

Pro Football Hall of Fame (great career)
NFL Pro Bowl players (great season)
Professional (Arena, Canadian, NFL)
Semi-professional
College
High school
Pop Warner/ youth tackle football leagues
Organized flag football
Sandlot/pickup games
Toss the ball around

The University of Miami has had tremendous success over the last four decades resulting in five national championships. Dozens of players have gone on to play in the NFL. And while some have played at the highest level, you couldn’t put 11 UM players on the field who are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Miami used to be known as “Quarterback U” for turning out great quarterbacks. Here’s a short list (in alphabetical order):

Ken Dorsey (Led team to 2001 National championship, first team All-American, Two time NCAA QB of the year, played in NFL for five years)
Craig Erickson (QB on 1991 National championship team, and third on UM’s all time passing leaders)
Jim Kelly (Only QB to lead pro team to Super Bowls four consecutive years)
Bernie Kosar (QB on 1983 National Championship team, two-time pro bowler with a successful career with the Cleveland Browns)
George Mira (Miami’s top QB for the school’s first 50 years. Played in the NFL and in CFL. And led his team to a World Football League championship and was the game’s MVP)
Vinny Testaverde (Heisman trophy winner and actually threw more TDs than Kelly in the NFL)
Gino Torretta (1992 Heisman Trophy winner, college football Hall of Fame, five year NFL career )
Steve Walsh (23-1 as starter at UM, QB of 1987 National Championship team)

I labor this point to say that of all the quarterback talent that has flowed through the University of Miami football program only one has made it to the top of the pyramid at the highest level. Only Jim Kelly is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And to show how brutal the talent hierarchy can be— if you field a three quarterback team from the NFL 100th Anniversary All Time Team you’re arguably left with Tom Brady, Joe Montana, and either Johnny Unitas/Dan Marino/ or John Elway.

This reminds me of the meme I saw recently saw on Twitter debating three of the greatest NBA basketball players: Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James—start one, bench one, cut one.

You can do this in the animal kingdom, with corporate lawyers, and a pie baking contest at your local county fair. Everywhere. Including Hollywood screenwriters.

On a recent Scriptnotes podcast Craig Mazin talked about the high dollar that top screenwriters can earn doing rewrites (paying upwards of $300,000 a week). But he added that that amounted to only 20-30 writers. He didn’t give any names, but those are the people at the top of the pyramid. Out of 7.5 billion people in the world, there are only 20-30 on the short list. (Probably about the same for current outstanding NFL quarterbacks in the world.)

The good news is thankfully you don’t need to be Tom Brady to play football or enjoy being around the game. Ken Dorsey is now a quarterback coach with the Buffalo Bills. Others coach at the high school level or college level. Others move on from the game, including one who is probably the most financially successful person to ever wear a Hurricane uniform—actor Dwayne Johnson. This year Forbes listed him as the highest paid male actor for the fiscal year ending in June, making an estimated $87.5 million. (And as a reminder to give back, Jim Kelly established the charity Hunter’s Hope.)

All you can do is do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Once upon a time every working screenwriter today didn’t have an agent or a manager, hadn’t even written screenplay yet, and wasn’t even on the talent tree or pyramid.

You may not be the next Quentin Tarantino, but take comfort in knowing that he spent years without getting anyone interested in his writings. Then a few years trying to make a low-budget film. (And while that failed, he says it was a great learning experience.) Then he started getting opportunities to do some re-writes for $5,000 a script. Eventually it all clicked and he moved up to the top of the tree/pyramid and collected some Academy Awards. To paraphrase what FSU football coach Bobby Bowden once to said of a star player, Tarantino may not be in a class by himself—but whatever class he’s in it doesn’t take long to do a role call.

P.S. Speaking of Sammy Weir, I found this photo over the weekend of the two of us on the sideline my senior year. Coach Weir was one of the main influences of me walking-on at Miami. He had been a Little All-American when he played at Arkansas State, and played briefly with the New York Jets (as a teammate with Joe Namath). I think he came to Orlando to play for the Orlando Panthers and eventually coached at several high schools in the area and UCF early in that program’s history. He told me he thought I could play major college football and so I gave it a shot. It didn’t work out like I’d hoped, but I don’t have any regrets.

I wore #42 after my hero Paul Warfield who was a top tier talent. An first team All American at Ohio St., a six time All Pro wide receiver with the Miami Dolphins and the Cleveland Browns, two time Super Bowl champ, inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1983 and in 2019 named to the National Football League 100th Anniversary All Time Team. That’s a nice resume.

Related post:
Postcard #23 (Coral Gables)
How Much Do Screenwriters Make?
Filmmaking and Football with Ryan Coogler
Screenwriting and the Super Bowl

Scott W. Smith




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“I know everything there is to know about the greatest game ever invented. “
Hoosiers (Dennis Hopper’s character)

Since tonight’s NCAA championship basketball game is an extension of March Madness, I’ve finally posted my March Screenwriting from Iowa video. The game tonight between powerhouse Duke (with several national championship) versus Butler (in their first national title appearance) has been called Hoosiers II. Not only because Butler is the smaller school going up against the well established program, but because part of the movie Hoosiers was actually shot in the Butler gym in Indianapolis, Indiana.

You know the ending part of the movie where little Hickory High School walks into the big gym and the players are in awe. And the coach (played by Gene Hackman) takes a tape measure to show the players that the rim is the same height as their little gym back home. They go on to pull off an upset victory in the closing seconds.

Hoosiers was released in November of  1986 and who knows how many basketball players have watched it for inspiration. Butler forward Gordon Hayward said, “I can’t really tell you how many times I’ve watched that movie. I think everyone growing up in Indiana watches that movie. I’ve lost count.”

And a fitting quote to tie-in screenwriting with basketball comes from Geoffrey Fletcher who reportedly wrote thousands of pages before his work finally made its way to the screen in the movie Precious: Based on a Book by Sapphire.

“I watch, say Michael Jordan play and he makes it look quite easy, but we never see all the hours, and hours, and hours of years of practice beforehand. So when people ask me if writing Precious was difficult (to write), well certainly it was. The subject matter…we have a semi-literate character telling us the story. But a lot of the difficulty was writing all of those pages of original material before I got this opportunity.”
Oscar-Winning screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher
wga.com interview

PS. One of the great things about the new HDSLR cameras is that shooting videos with it opens up new opportunites. I bought the Nikon D90 which was the first HDLS released that shot HD video. I took it with me to the Northern Iowa gym to take some still photos for the above video and ended up thinking, “why not shoot a little video while I’m here.” So other than the greenscreen opening section that was shot on Panasonic HPX 170, I shot all the photos and video with the Nikon D90. It doesn’t take much surfing on the web to see many high quality short narrative films and videos that are being made with this new jump in technology. (Just did some test shooting with the very popular Canon 7D last week and that camera is solid.)I haven’t heard of a feature being made with a HDSLR yet, but I’m sure that’s just around the corner.

Related Posts:
Storytelling from Indiana

The King of Cool’s Roots

Why Do We Love Underdog Stories?

Scott W. Smith


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If you follow hurricanes at all you may know that Hurricane Bill kicked up some pretty nice waves along Florida’s east coast the past few days. Florida is not usually known for large waves. Most days the surf pales compared to the best surf spots in California & Hawaii. So one could make the mistake of thinking that small wave Florida wouldn’t produce world champion surfers.

But the pro surf version of Lance Armstrong/Michael Jordan/Tiger Woods is in fact from Florida. Kelly Slater was born in Cocoa Beach, Florida in 1972 and has won the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) World Championship a record nine times. He holds the record for being both the youngest (20) and the oldest (36) to win the title. He is also the all-time leader in career event wins. Pretty amazing stats for anyone but more amazing since he came from an area nicknamed the “Small Wave Capital of the World.”

TV buffs may recall that Cocoa Beach is the setting for the 60s classic show I Dream of Jeannie. (Though according to Wikipedia the cast and crew only visited the area twice for filming). As part of the Space Coast, Cocoa Beach is where parades were held for astronauts when they would return from the Apollo missions. (As featured in The Right Stuff.) Though only six miles long, about a mile wide, this little town of 12,000 has had its brushes with greatness. So maybe it’s a fitting place for the greatest competitive ever to be from.

And Slater is not the only surf champion from Florida. Both Lisa Andersen (Ormond Beach) and Freida Zamba (Daytona Beach) both hold four ASP titles, and C.J. Hobgood (from Melbourne/Satellite Beach, FL) won the 2001 ASP World Championship and last year’s O’Neil Cup of World Surfing. I could go on about accomplished surfers from basically a 100 mile path on the coast of Florida from Ormond Beach to Sebastian Inlet, but I think you get the point.

Having spent most of my life in Central Florida it’s an area I’m fond of as I’ve gotten to spend my share time in the water there over the years. In fact, just two weeks ago I got several hours in of bodybording and longboard surfing in New Smyrna Beach/Cape Canaveral. But the reason I think champion surfers have risen from that area is it’s a great place to get in your 10,000 hours learning the craft and there is a history of surfing there that goes back for decades. That’s a great combination. And Slater working his magic on the smaller waves everyday as a kid is actually what set him up to change the face of surfing when he had an opportunity to perform on larger waves on the world stage.

I bring that up on a blog about screenwriting because it once again shows that something great can come from outside Southern California. Looking at surfers coming from the east coast of Florida is like looking at why so many writers come from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and why world class sprinters come from Jamaica. Vision, hard work, and the right ground work years (decades?) in the making seem to be what set a part places like Iowa City, Kingston, and Cocoa Beach to produce amazing results.

Part of Cocoa Beach’s ground work was Ron DiMenna opening Ron Jon’s surf shop in 1959  in Cocoa Beach. That helped create the surf culture that is there until this day. That’s 13 years before Slater was even born. Though Ron Jon’s today resembles Walt Disney World more than traditional surf culture, I have to think that back in the day Slater’s dad bought a board or two at Ron Jon’s.  (Or at least at least a Hang Ten/Lighting Bolt/OP shirt.)

Once again in an era of digital filmmaking the doors are being blown open for filmmakers to rise up from unusual places. And if you need a little more inspiration read my post about Coppola’s “fat little girl from Ohio” comment.

Lastly, I should mention that there is another deep connection to films and surfing as the two seem to go hand in hand. From Gidget, Big Wednesday, and Warren Miller’s classic surf films, to Blue Crush, Jack Johnson’s Thicker Than Water, and  Endless Summer II (which featured Slater) there has never been a shortage of finding great footage to put on screen—finding a great script with a surf angle has been proven a little more difficult to find.

Scott W. Smith

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