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Posts Tagged ‘midwest’

After 72 years on the air the CBS soap opera Guiding Light faded off screen for the last time on Friday.  The show which began in 1937 as a radio program found its way to TV in 1952. Over 15,000 shows aired. That’s a lot of scripts.

The show won 69 daytime Emmy’s and provided work for many well-known actors as they were starting out including Kevin Bacon, Calista Flockhart and James Earl Jones. It would be interested to see if there were any well-known writers who got their start there.

The demise of Guiding Light leaves only seven daytime dramas still running. (Four decades ago at its peak there were 19 daytime dramas on air.) While millions still watch the daytime dramas the rating systems have been hit hard in recent years as viewers find other addictions. Who needs soap operas when there’s Facebook?

And though the show was taped in Manhattan, I was interested to find out that the last couple decades the show was set in the fictional town of Springfield somewhere in the Midwest. Who knows, maybe the longest running show in broadcast history took place in Iowa.

I actually have a writer friend who is from Cedar Falls, Iowa, Cydney Kelley, who spent 2000-2009 writing scripts for the daytime drama Days of Our Lives. Though she lives in L.A., last summer I saw her working on a script while she was working out on a Stairmaster at the rec center. Screenwriting from Iowa, baby!

And just to give you a little behind the scene glimpse of writing daytime drama I found this post online by writer Todd Strasser:

“Some of the smartest writers I ever met worked on Guiding Light.”

Soap operas, like many TV shows, are written by teams of writers. At the top of the Guiding Light team circa 1990 was a head writer named Pamela Long. Pamela was a former beauty queen (Miss Alabama 1974) and actress. It was her job to come up with ‘the long story,’ that is, the story of the emotional travails of the large cast of characters on the show (In general Pam was supposed to know what the characters would be thinking and feeling for the next six months, although often, it seemed, there was uncertainty about what they would be doing the next day.)

Under Pam were the breakdown writers. During my brief sojourn at Guiding Light, I was one of them. We worked with Pam to fill out the long story so that all the characters were involved in a weekly basis according to their contract requirements. Some characters were contracted to work five days a week, and others one day a week. The number of times they appeared per week could change based on their popularity and the popularity of whatever emotional morass they were floundering in. After we completed our 20-page breakdowns of each day’s script, a script writer would turn them into action and dialogue.

Pam’s job was easy. All she had to do in any given week was:
1) Make sure she knew where all the intertwining stories of the show’s characters
2) Meet with the breakdown writers to work out that week’s set of breakdowns
3) Read the breakdowns after they were written
4) Read the scripts based on the breakdowns
5) Talk to the breakdown and script writers about what they’d written and what needed to be rewritten
6) Make sure the show’s directors were shooting the show as scripted
7) Deal with actors who often did not like the dialogue the writers had chosen for them to say
8)Deal with producers who might disagree with where she wanted to show to go
9) Go to publicity appearances and give interviews to soap opera magazines and do whatever other publicity activities were required.”

I did some quick research and found out that Pamela K. Long won two Outstanding Writing Daytime Emmys. Not bad for a trained ventriloquist raised in Huntsville, Alabama with “rednecks and rocket scientists” and a sorority girl at the University of Northern Alabama in Florence.  A school whose Latin motto is “Veritas Lux. Orbis Terrarum” (“Truth and Light of the World”).

Scott W. Smith

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Auntie Em: “Why don’t you find a place where there isn’t any trouble?” 
Dorothy:
“A place where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place Toto? There must be.”
                                                                               The Wizard of Oz

Melissa: “Is there an F5?… What would that be like?”
Jason ‘Preacher’ Rowe
: ”The finger of God.” 
                                                                               Twister
 

Chances are if you think back to where you were in 1996 it may seem like 100 years ago. A lot can happen in 12 years.

1996 is on my radar today because it’s the release date of a two-disc special edition of the movie Twister that was made that year. Iowa was not on my radar back then and neither were storm chasers.  Those strange people who in the name of science roam the region known as tornado alley chasing monster-sized tornados looking for data to improve warning systems and hopefully save lives. (And also a good excuse to have an exciting day at the office.)

Twister was shot in Oklahoma and Iowa and according to some reports it was one of the most demanding films ever made. It earned every penny of its almost $500 million worldwide gross. According to Box Office Mojo Twister is #50 in all-time domestic box office draw.

 

It was everything that you expect from a big Hollywood tent pole movie. Special effects and more special effects. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in the Twister screenplay the story is basically there to bridge one spectacular special effect with the next. The filmmakers and the studios told us what kind of film they were making and delivered on their promise.

I look forward to seeing the special edition DVD just to see the behind the scene footage and listen to the added commentary material. In fact, the commentary material may be the only way I watch some films from now on. I did that for the first time with the movie Cloverfield. I just rented it to listen to the director’s commentary. (I love learning little things like one phrase producer J.J. Abrams is fond of saying to keep the budget down is “We can make this whole movie with a ball of yarn.” Abrams and director Matt Reeves did an amazing job with special effects on Cloverfield given their budget was only a third of Twisters.)

A couple weeks ago I was meandering in a used book store next to the University of Northern Iowa looking for something different and came across a book called Twister: The Science of Tornadoes and the Making of an Adventure Movie by Keay Davidson.

I flipped through it and found this quote:

“If you want a spiritual experience, you should go spend April to June in the Midwest, because you have never seen cloud formations like this! You watch everything in the sky happening in front of you as if you were watching time-lapse photography. We would literally watch cloud towers shoot into the sky and within fifteen minutes one little cloud would rise to become one 30,000 feet high.” 
                                                                     Producer (Twister) Kathleen Kennedy

Now when Kathleen Kennedy talks you should listen. She has flat out had an amazing career in Hollywood and has had a hand in producing some of my favorite films: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Seabiscuit (the only movie poster I own), and most recently The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. If you’re still not impressed, she also produced the upcoming Indiana Jones film being released later this month. (Not bad for starting out as a secretary/production assistant for Steven Spielberg.)

To top it off Kennedy is married to Frank Marshall who produced Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Bourne Ultimatum and a whole lot in between. Together the Kennedy/Marshall duo have produced films that have made over 5 billion dollars. 

Here’s another passage from Davidson’s book:

Twister’s setting is as grandiose as its subject: the Midwest. A terrain as rich in myth for Americans as the Aegean is for Greeks…What makes the Midwestern sky “so interesting is that the terrain is so flat—more than half of what you’re seeing is sky! So you tend to pay a lot of attention to it, said (Twister) director of photography Jack Green. “They’ve got these incredible cloud patterns passing through—clouds that contrast against a clear, intense blue and nearly unpolluted sky.”

The blue sky here in Iowa can be mesmerizing. (Especially if you’ve ever been on the Disney lot in Burbank and not been able to see the Verdugo Mountains just a few miles away because of the smog.) And while some Hollywood producers only know that blue sky as they’re flying over this part of the country, there are stories to be told from here. And I hope you’re doing your part to write them down wherever you live.

On a closing note the first week of May is not even over and already around 100 tornados have been spotted in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana and Iowa. Unfortunately it’s cost hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damages and claimed several lives.

And even more tragic, in Myanmar (next to Thailand) they report over 20,000 deaths due to a cyclone this week.

None of us know where we’ll be 12 years from now. But one thing we can be sure of is there will be more disasters like Hurricane Katrina, 911, and the Tsunami that killed over 200,000 in Asia.  There will be many prayers said and much relief work done. But remember that stories can also bring healing power and help give us perspective on life.

“Today is Father’s Day. Until my stroke, we had felt no need to fit this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar. But today we spend the whole of the symbolic day together, affirming that even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad.”
                                                                       The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
                                                                        Jean-Dominique Bauby 

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“The Tennessee Williams we know and admire cannot be imagined without his long relationship with the Midwest.”  
                                                                                                                                            David Radavich

“I’m only really alive when I’m writing.”
Tennessee
 Williams

When you think of St. Louis the chances are good that you think of the iconic St. Louis Arch. (I took this picture on one of those perfect clear windy mornings one day when I was driving through town and it is majestic to see up close.) What’s probably lower on your St. Louis list is that writer Tennessee Williams grew up there.

Before I address the writers from Missouri let me first say that there would not be a Tennessee Williams without Iowa. Oh, there probably would still be a great American playwright but he might just be called him by his given name Tom. Tom Williams isn’t quite as memorable.  “I got the name of Tennessee,” said Williams, “when I was going to the State University of Iowa because the fellows in my class could only remember that I was from a Southern state with a long name.”

He was actually born in Columbus, Mississippi but Mississippi Williams doesn’t quite have the proper ring to it either so it’s a good thing his classmates got it wrong. Much of his early childhood was lived with his grandfather at the rectory of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

According to David Radavich, Williams said his childhood there was happy and carefree, but “this sense of belonging and comfort were lost, however, when his family moved to the urban environment of St. Louis, Missouri. It was there he began to look inward, and to write— ‘because I found life unsatisfactory.’” Williams struggled with depression and took comfort in his daily writing as well as the bottle.

“Whether or not we admit it to ourselves, we are all haunted by a truly awful sense of impermanence.”
 Tennessee Williams

The is no doubt that the Mississippi Delta shaped his imagination as it has so many others. Clarksdale is known as the birthplace of the blues and the location of the Crossroads intersection of Highways 61 and 49 where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to play the guitar like he did.

Clarksdale’s where musicians Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, and  W.C. Handy were born and where The Delta Blues Museum lives today.  If you’re anywhere in the Memphis area it’s worth a trip out of your way to visit.

But from the age of seven through the college years Williams lived in the Midwest mostly in St. Louis. Radavich writes, “In 1931, Williams was admitted to the University of Missouri where he saw a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts and decided to become a playwright. His journalism program was interrupted however, when his father forced him to withdraw from college to work at the International Shoe Company.”

Even though Williams is mostly remembered for his time in New Orleans, Key West, and New York, Missouri is where he would return to again and again, visiting his mother until she died in 1980. Williams died three years later and is buried in St. Louis.

Saturday night I went to see Williams’ 1955 Pulitzer Prize winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here it Cedar Falls just a little over an hour away from where Williams studied playwriting at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 1938. The play brought back many memories.

When I lived in LA I studied acting for three years mostly at Tracey Roberts Actors Studio. Roberts was a talented actress in her day but never became a star. She was a wonderful teacher and encourager and herself had studied and performed with the greats of the Actors Studio – Lee Strasberg, Clifford Odets, Stella Adler, and Elia Kazan. (Sharon Stone and Laura Dern both studied with Roberts.)

It was at her studio that I began to appreciate good writing. In a scene study class I had with Arthur Mendoza we spent three months working on just the opening monologue of “The Glass Menagerie”:

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion….”

And so it began. There was much to learn in three months just beyond getting the words down. Place, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology wrapped in Williams’ poetic style. Mendoza also stressed learning about the playwrights background so we studied that as well. It would do every writer good to take at least one acting class in their life. You’ll meet some actors and learn the process they go through in approaching your text.

As I did my scene the final day of class it was the one true moment I ever had as an actor where I felt totally in sync. We sometimes look back on any success big or small with regret but I look back on that day with satisfaction. (It was the highlight of my brief acting career, even bigger than the Dominos Pizza commercial I was in later. Though for the record, Domino’s founder Tom Monaghan’s two-story office in Ann Arbor, Michigan still holds the record for the largest office I’ve ever been in.)

Mendoza studied with Stellar Adler for 10 years and became the principal acting instructor at Stella Adler’s Studio where Benicio Del Toro studied with him. (Del Toro won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in Traffic.) Mendoza eventually formed the Actors Theater Circle in Hollywood where he still teaches today. He was the first to open my eyes to the classic playwrights. He threw out names of writers I had never heard of and said as actors we needed to be able to flip our pancakes and do them all.

During that time I found three books at a used bookstore on Main Street in Seal Beach, California that caused a shift in my thinking about the power of writing. For one dollar each I picked up the best plays of Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg. Best three dollars I ever spent.

Strindberg did not stay with me but Ibsen and Chekhov have been lifelong friends. Only recently did I find out Ibsen’s Ghost influence on Williams. Which makes perfect sense given Williams fascination of dealing with the sins of the father being visited on the son. Williams tapped into the southern-family-with-hidden-problems theme.

Williams’ play The Glass Menagerie had a Midwest beginning as it premiered in Chicago. He wrote fragile characters who were on the brink of hysteria. And he was rewarded well for such characters winning two Pulitzer Prizes along with two Oscar nominations.

Two other creative writing giants where also raised in Missouri, Mark Twain in Hannibal and Walt Disney in Marceline and Kansas City. (Both Hannibal and Marceline are less than an hour south of the Iowa border.) Marceline is said to be the inspiration behind Main Street USA at Disneyland and Walt Disney World in Orlando has Tom Sawyer’s Island. Exporting the Midwest for all the world to enjoy.

Other screenwriters born in  Missouri include William Rose who won an Oscar in 1968 for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, John Milius (Apocalypse Now), Langston Hughes (screenwriter & playwright), Dan O’bannon  (Alien), Honorary Academy Award Director/Screenwriter Robert Altman, and Oscar-winning director/writer John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). That’s a deep rich heritage.

So Missouri joins the areas we’ve already looked at, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin as more than capable of producing talented writers.

“Somehow I can’t believe there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C’s. They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage, and Constancy and the greatest of these is Confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.
Walt Disney

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Mark Twain

“I’m an airmail pilot. St. Louis to Springfield to Peoria to Chicago. The ocean can’t be any worse than snow, sleet and fog.” (Charles A. Lindbergh the night before his historic flight across the Atlantic ocean.)

The Spirit of St. Louis
Screenplay Billy Wilder
& Wendell Mayes
based on Lindbergh’s book

Photo & text copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Everybody lives by selling something.”      Robert Louis Stevenson

“Tell stories! Great Speechifying = Great Storytelling. Period.”    Tom Peters

Stephanie Palmer’s Q&A on her book “Good in a Room” generated the second highest views to this site. (Right behind “The Juno-Iowa Connection” after Diablo Cody won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.) So I thought it would be worth exploring a little more in detail.

According to Stephanie (a former MGM executive):  “Good in a room” is a Hollywood term referring to creative people who excel pitching at high-stakes meeting. 

 

Outside of Hollywood being “good in a room” may be pitching an investor in your project. In advertising circles around the world it may be trying to get a client excited about your creative ideas.

Let’s not kid ourselves, public speaking is part of being good in a room. The thing that many people list as their #1 fear. If you’re a writer who pumps out great thoughts and people send you a check without you having to get out of your bathrobe then you can probably afford to skip learning to be a public speaker.

For everyone else it’s a great skill to learn. But can one to learn to be a good speaker? Some of the answers found in the post “Can Writing Be Taught?” apply here.

First speaking is like writing, the more you do it the better you will become. A friend who is a fitness instructor told me years ago that the key to staying is shape is, “It has to be a lifestyle.” The results aren’t pretty when we try to jog a mile after a year or two layoff. But how can you practice public speaking?

One of the best places to go to learn and practice public speaking is joining Toastmasters International. I moved to L.A. when I was 21 and the first thing I did was follow everyone’s advice and buy a Thomas Bros Road guide for LA and Orange counties. (I used to drive 30,000 miles a year in those days and those spiral bound detailed map books were gold. I imagine these days in an GPS/Mapquest age those books are less in demand.)

But the first thing I wish someone would have told me to do was to join Toastmasters. It took years of prompting in Tom Peters books before I finally visited a club Toastmasters meeting and then (after a couple of years on the sideline) to join. I now have been a member of a Toastmaster group for two years and it has been a wonderful experience and I recently received my Competent Communicator certificate for completing ten 5-10 minute talks.

Here’s what Peters’ writes in his book Brand you 50 (50 Ways to Transform Yourself):
Join Toastmasters. You are your own P.R. “Agency.” 

Building a local reputation is part and parcel of building Brand You. That means using any opportunity to…Tell Your Story.

 

Tame your (v-e-r-y natural!) fear of public speaking. There are doubtless lots of strategies for this. I am an unabashed Toastmaster fan. Toastmasters is a bit too structured for me, but that’s the smallest annoyance. It is the premier self-help organization  that has led hundreds of thousands to master Self-Presentation.

Toastmasters is a safe place to begin improving your speaking skills and with dues under $30. a year it’s one great investment. I am amazed to watch how people improve in just a couple of weeks. There are Toastmaster groups around the world…even in Iowa. There are probably several groups in your area that meet at all different times to fit into your schedule.

(Just learned from writer Lisa Klink’s blog that there is a Toastmaster flyer on display up at the WGA offices in Los Angeles. Could be an excellent networking opportunity for those in L.A.)

But Stephanie points out that being good in a room is more than just being a good speaker and pitching your ideas. It’s about building rapport. She says that in her experience as a studio executive the buyers are asking themselves if they want to spend a couple of years of their life working with you on a project.

“The Ultimate goal of ANY pitch is to establish an ongoing relationship with the person you are pitching…when I hear a two-minute pitch, I’m also checking out if this is the kind of person I’d like to do business with.”
Shelia Hanahan Taylor, Practical Pictures

Obviously your story must be solid but it helps if you’re likable as well. Stephanie lists three secrets for building rapport:

Secret 1: Allow yourself to really care about the other person and to be curious about who he or she is. Empathic interest creates trust.

Secret 2: Common ground cannot be faked or fudged. Rapport requires honesty.

Secret 3: The warmth that signifies true rapport is not something you can force. 

She unpacks these more in detail in her book so make sure you pick up a copy “Good in Room” and join Toastmasters as well. And embrace the fact that you are a salesperson. If you want to see a novice screenwriter be brilliant in a room find a DVD of the first season of Project Greenlight and watch how first time director Pete Jones does a master sales job on Ben Afflack, Matt Damon and Chris Moore as he pitched his story Stolen Summer which they did produce.

Where did Pete learn to be a salesman? He sold insurance in Chicago. (Always pushing for that Midwest angle, aren’t I?)

Speaking of Midwest angles —  in the latest Script Magazine (Vol. 14/Number 2) there is a photo of Kevin Costner from Field of Dreams.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“IS THIS HEAVEN?”

 

 

(That movie was filmed about an hour away from where I’m typing this blog and you can tour the Field of Dreams Movie Site from April through December.) Anyway, the photo of Costner in a baseball pitcher’s windup is in an article by Lee Zahavi-Jessup titled Perfect Pitch. It’s a solid article and a good read.

Zahavi-Jessup writes, “With a strong pitch, the writer is allowed an opportunity to display the brilliance, efficiency and creative prevalent in his 120-page screenplay in a focused and concise fashion.”  That takes practice.

I’ve also noticed online pitches starting to pop up and I don’t think that’s a trend that will fade away. I believe it will open the door for more writers outside LA to be able to pitch their stories. If all this seems too much to grasp remember the Milton Glazer quote, “Art is work.”

 

“A lot of the time it’s essential that you have some P.T. Barnum in your personality. That is, you have to know how to sell.

                                                        Andrew Marlow (screenwriter, Air Force One)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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