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“Trouble, oh we got trouble, Right here in River City!”
                                                  Music Man, written by Iowa native Meredith Willson

How high’s the water, mama? 
Five feet high and risin’ 
                                                   Johnny Cash
                                                   Five Feet High and Risin’ 

 

I was supposed to get my haircut today…that didn’t happen.

When the morning begins with a segment of the NBC Today Show in Cedar Falls, Iowa you know there’s trouble in River City. Just two blocks from my office the Cedar River flows. In fact, we chose the name River Run Productions for our company because we saw the river as a metaphor that runs though Iowa and eventually into the Mississippi which eventually runs into the Gulf of Mexico and around the world.

Little did we know when we launched in January of ‘07 that just four months later I would be doing a shoot in Brazil including flying in a seaplane over the meeting of the waters where the Amazon and Rio Negro Rivers meet. 

But back in Cedar Falls today it was a long day of partaking along with hundreds (thousands?) of volunteers (including my partner who lost his home in the Parkersburg tornado two weeks ago) filling and placing sandbags trying to keep the river at bay. So far it’s been working to protect the downtown area, though many people in the low lying areas have evacuated and much of their homes underwater.  And the river is not supposed to crest until sometime tomorrow. 

 

Somewhere between moving boxes of photographs and memories to the basement Saturday night due to a tornado warning and taking the same boxes upstairs this morning in case of flooding, one can’t help but examine what you really need in your life.

I took all of these photos today and will give updates in coming days and then bring it full circle in regard to screenwriting and life.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday June 11, 2008 Update

The sandbagging on Tuesday paid off in Cedar Falls as the river crested at 2 AM with the downtown being spared from any flooding despite a record level of 102 feet. I drove over to Waterloo to help artist & friend Paco Rosic with his battle to hold back the flooding there from his restaurant/studio. Without much sleep in the last two night he and his father are winning the battle when most have given up.  Here are some shots of the front, inside (the multiple cords going to several water pumps), and view from the back of Galleria De Paco (voted this year as the #1 attraction in Iowa).

 

Thursday June 12, 2008 Update

Where’d all the good people go?
I’ve been changin’ channels
I don’t see them on the tv shows
Where’d all the good people go?
                                                                                                 Jack Johnson
                                                                                                 Good People

The secret’s out, Jack. A lot of those good people are in Iowa. They’re even on tv. NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams showed some of them in last night’s broadcast, including a nurse who volunteered in the morning after working an all-night shift in an intensive care unit. All told, I heard 5,000 people and 250,000 sandbags filled and placed on the levee helped keep the river back in downtown Cedar Falls. (Not that I put myself in the good people category, but I did make a brief cameo on the NBC segment in a non-speaking role as “Volunteer passing sandbag in white long sleeve t-shirt and camera strap around front.”)

It appears the worst is over in Cedar Falls but problems continue to mount in Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, and Iowa City and in other cites across Iowa and the Midwest. All of this reminds me of a quote from Steve Brown who I produced a video for in Nashville a couple years ago:

“The one thing I’ve learned is every day the world rolls over on top of someone who was just sitting on top of it yesterday.”

I don’t think a week goes by when I don’t think of that quote. I used to keep a list I called the roll over club. It contained names like John Kennedy Jr., Princess Diana, Mike Tyson, Kenneth Lay (Enron), Michael Vick, Britney Spears, Barry Bonds…you get the picture.

The point is things change quickly when your sitting on top of the world. I’m fond of pointing to Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air where after reaching the peak of Mount Everest exhausted he took a few pictures and then began his decent. Krakauer writes, “All told, I’d spent less than five minutes on the roof of the world.”

Over the years I’ve seen many people who were at the top of the world before it began to roll: Muhammad Ali, Christopher Reeves, and Michael J. Fox come to mind. Ali continually reminded us that he was “the greatest” though he had to recant that later, when Reeves died due to complications from a horse riding accident that had left him paralyzed one headline read, “Superman Dies,” and Fox had an amazing dream year in his early 20’s when he was the star of the top rated TV program that he shot in the day and then went to his night job shooting “Back to the Future” that would become a #1 box office hit long before his career and life took a blow as he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

And in 1990 The New York Times  ran an article on The Man Who Own Prime Time about Brandon Tartikoff who had become the youngest person ever to be chosen the head programmer of a network at 31 and rose to become president of NBC Entertainment. Under his leadership NBC flourished with a string of successes including Cheers, The Cosby Show, LA Law, Family Ties and Seinfeld and for one incredible five year run NBC was the No. 1 Network for five consecutive seasons. Seven years after that article appeared Tartiloff died at age 48 from Hodgkin’s disease. 

Despite human’s great accomplishments, the above stories and this recent flood are reminders of how fragile we are. 

Whatever mountain top you are reaching for know that if you are one of the fortunate ones who gets to the summit you don’t get to stay up there very long. An acting teaching once told me “When your feet hit the ground in the morning if you don’t want to be an actor more than anything then don’t pursue it because it’s too hard to make it and too hard to stay if you do make it. So unless you love acting it’s not worth it.” That’s great advise for the screenwriter as well.  

In the June 5 issues of Time magazine there is an article called “How to Live Live With Just 100 Things.” Lisa Mclaughlin writes, ‘Excess consumption is practically an American religion. But as anyone with a filled-to-the-gills closet knows, the things we accumulate can become oppressive.” Dave Bruno started what he calls “the 100 Thing Challenge,  a grass-roots movement in which otherwise seemingly normal folks are pledging to whittle down their possessions to a mere 100 items.”

Maybe trading in your multiple piece spoon, fork and knife set for a spork won’t bring the Jewish concept of Shalom or peace (what Cornelius Plantinga Jr. calls “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight…Shalom, in other words is the way things ought to be.”)  But maybe it’s a step in the direction of that happy ending we all seek.

I think that is the single greatest reasons why movie audiences yearn for (in some cases demand) a happy ending. Because one of the deepest longings in life is to find shalom. Look at many of the films people return to again and again (The Shawshank Redemption, Titanic, The Princess Bride, Star Wars, Finding Nemo, Rocky, The Wizard of Oz) and you will find this concept over and over again. Most (all?) films at least show a small corner of shalom or it’s opposite, a world lived outside the garden.

Who doesn’t want to have that moment of clarity that Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire has as he writes his mission statement and says, “It was the me I’d always wanted to be”? 

Often it takes an event like a flood, 9-11 or a death in the family, or a personal illness to get our attention. Out of difficult times we need to have hope that there is a purpose and meaning to our suffering. Let’s not forget those who have lost greatly in the recent tornadoes and floods and pitch in where we can. And in time we’ll hear stories from this flood about how good things came out of the calamity.

Just like the Johnny Cash song Five Feet High and Risin’:

My mama always taught me that good things come from adversity if we put our faith in the Lord.
We couldn’t see much good in the flood waters when they were causing us to have to leave home, 
But when the water went down, we found that it had washed a load of rich black bottom dirt across our land. The following year we had the best cotton crop we’d ever had.

Sunday June 15, 2008 Update

This morning’s early morning lightening storm was kind of an exclamation point to two weeks of strange weather for the area.

And all the flooding in Iowa proves one thing: Jay Leno was wrong. Back in the first week January just before the Iowa caucuses he said that the word caucus was an Indian word meaning the only day of the year anyone pays attention to Iowa.

From two weeks ago when Parkersburg and other towns where hit by a tornado to the flooding of last week has provided the national press with lots of dramatic images.

Things began to return back to normal in Cedar Falls on Friday when the downtown ban was lifted and the national guard moved on. By Friday night hundreds of people had gathered in Overman Park to watch a movie in the park. Late Saturday afternoon I rode my bike downtown and saw Cup ‘O Joe was open on Main St. and the distinct sound of a Bob Marley song was being performed live at The Hub: 

Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
Singin’: “Don’t worry about a thing,
‘Cause every little thing gonna be all right!

                                            Bob Marley
                                            Three Little Birds

 

 

Wednesday June 18, 2008 Update

It’s tough out there
High Water Everywhere
                                                                              
Bob Dylan   
                                                                               High Water (For Charlie Patton)
 

It’s hard to believe that is less than a week that flooding in Iowa alone as displaced tens of thousands of people and caused over $1.5 billion in damage. It’s a classic man vs. nature battle that will also have long a term economic impact.

Just about a month ago I did a couple days location scouting for Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It in the very areas being hit by flood waters; Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Vinton and Cedar Rapids. Probably a good choice by Mandate Pictures to shoot their roller derby film later this summer in other states. 

But those areas will rebound because that’s what good Midwestern people do. And I thought I’d share with you some photos from this part of Iowa that I hope will be a refreshing break from the images you are seeing on the TV day after day. 

Vinton, Iowa Library

Vinton, Iowa Courthouse

 Cedar Rapids, Iowa 

Cedar Rapids Historic Theater

 

 

Photos and text copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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drivemissdaisy.jpg
Here’s everything I learned in film school (and in screenwriting workshops and books)…boiled down to one word. But before I get to that one word let me say that I went to film school so long ago that Orson Welles was in my class. Okay, not that long ago, but back when film schools only used film.

I mention that because I think the average film school student today (heck, high school student) is much more film savvy then when I was in school. Because of DVDs and the Internet students today generally can converse about film directors and writers on a pretty sophisticated level. (The Tarantino factor?)

At least in Florida in the early 80s film school was a little off the chart. After I told a high school friend I was going to film school he asked, “What do you do with that?” (I’m still trying to answer that question.)

Before everyone wanted to be a film director young people just wanted to be rock stars. I knew nobody who had any connection to the film industry when I decided to go to film school.

I mention all of this because the one word I’m going to tell you is so basic. But it is the single most important thing I learned in film school. It may not be a revelation to you, but it’s important nonetheless.

And as professor and writer CS Lewis said, “We need to be reminded more often than we need to be taught.”

The most important thing I learned in film school was the importance of (here it comes) conflict. Not just any conflict, but meaningful conflict.

A few years ago I went to a writing workshop with Alfred Uhry, the writer of Driving Miss Daisy. I believe he’s the only writer to win an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony award. I thought that it was sure to be a wealth of writing information.

This was when I lived in Orlando (Anyone remember Hollywood East?) when a theater group was performing Driving Miss Daisy that he was coming to see and agreed to do a master class on writing.

One of the first things he said was something to the effect of — I’m not sure why I’m here. I’m not sure why they asked me to speak on writing. I’m not sure there are any rules to follow.

This is what I paid money to hear?

I raised my hand and asked, “What about conflict?”

He agreed conflict was important and he began to talk and we were off to the races. He didn’t have a prepackaged seminar, but it was a wonderful day of hearing his antidotes and experiences in the film business.  He said something that has stuck with me all these years and that I think would be helpful for all writers to hear. It was about his expectations after writing Driving Miss Daisy. He had little expectations.

He was in early fifties and he just wrote the 62 page play as a tribute to his grandmother. That’s all. He wasn’t trying to change the world. He wasn’t trying to get rich and famous. He wasn’t trying to write the great American screenplay and win an Academy Award. His starting place was small–almost obscure.

When he found out it would have a six-week run at a theater in New York so far off-Broadway that you had to walk up three flights of stairs to see the play, he was thrilled. He was glad it would have a long enough run that all his relatives could see the play.

Kind of reminds me of Sam Shepard’s early plays that were performed in a church basement in Manhattan. (Speaking of Shepard, let me get in an Iowa plug. The movie Country, about the farm crisis in the 80’s, starring Shepard and Jessica Lange was filmed right here in Black Hawk County.)

Uhry didn’t know that his story of an elderly Jewish woman and her black driver would strike a chord like it did. (It certainly wasn’t a high concept story.) But the play became a Broadway hit and then it was off to Hollywood.

To borrow the words of Jimmy Buffett, Uhry “captured the magic.” May we all be fortunate enough in our life to have that experience one time. Driving Miss Daisy was Uhry’s equivalent of Don McClean’s song American Pie. It’s become a part of the fabric of our culture.

Uhry captured the magic with a story that was small in Hollywood terms, but one full of conflict as well as meaning.

From the opening scene when she had an accident while backing her car out…until Miss Daisy died it is a story full of meaningful conflict.

If real estate’s mantra is location, location, location, then for screenwriters it’s conflict, conflict, conflict. The lack of conflict in screenplays is why studio readers say that you can cut out the first 30 pages of many screenplays and nothing would be lost. Start your story as late as you can and start it with conflict. (Rocky loses his locker, in Sounder the boy’s dad is hauled away, Nemo’s mother, brothers and sisters are all killed, Juno is pregnant, all in the first few scenes of the story. And it’s hard to beat the first line in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, “Gregor Samsa woke one morning and found he had changed overnight into a gigantic insect.” When you wake up and you’re a bug, that’s meaningful conflict.)

What are your favorite movies scenes? Good chance they’re full of meaningful conflict. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small (Sunset Boulevard). “She’s my sister and my daughter.” (Chinatown)—Conflict, Conflict, Conflict.

“Plays are about conflict. Plays are about people not getting along.”
Edward Albee

“Nobody goes to the theater, or switches on the tube, to view a movie entitled The Village of the Happy Nice People.”
Richard Walter

“Never put two people in a room who agree on anything.”
Lew Hunter

Look AFI’s list of heroes and villains. All full of conflict.

AFI’s100 Years…100 Movie Quotes is full of meaningful conflict. (“Houston we have a problem.” Apollo 13)

So there you have everything I learned in film school boiled down into one word — conflict.

I just saved you tens of thousands of dollars. (I hope you’ll buy my book when it’s published.)

Now all you have to do is sit down and write a story full of meaningful conflict. That’s the hard part.

In every scene you write there should be some level of conflict. It could be rising conflict (the calm before the storm) or resolution afterwards. But conflict is at the core of your story. Conflict with self, conflict with society, conflict friends and family, conflict with nature…but have conflict with something.

Meaningful conflict usually is conflict on at least two levels. The town has conflict with the shark eating people, and an economic conflict if tourist are kept away which leads to conflict in society with leads to conflict within the family. And to top it off the sheriff has his own conflict because he is afraid of the water. Jaws was not just a run-of-the-mill special effects movie. In fact, the special effects weren’t all that special.

The reason conflict is such a powerful piece of filmmaking is because we can relate to that in our own lives. Mike Tyson said that, “Everyone has a plan, until they are punched in the face.” Country music singer Deana Carter has a song titled, “Did I shave my legs for this?” We can relate to conflict. Every day we have to deal with conflict on many levels. It’s part of living east of Eden.   

Driving Miss Daisy wasn’t written in Iowa, but it takes place far from Hollywood in a small town in Georgia.  And that’s at the heart of Screenwriting from Iowa.

The state of Georgia is no stranger to conflict. (I’m not just talking about the Civil War or the Florida Gator’s football team.) Read the sermons from Ebenezer Baptist church by its former pastor Dr. Martin Luther King.  And think of these songs and stories rooted in Georgia history.

Gone with the Wind

Forrest Gump

Glory

Deliverance

The Color Purple

Midnight of the Garden of Good and Evil

The Devil went Down to Georgia

The Night the Lights went out in Georgia

Rainy Night in Georgia

Midnight Train to Georgia

Any short story by Flannery O’Connor.

Write stories about where you live. And like Alfred Uhry don’t set out to write the great American screenplay. Just write screenplays full of meaningful conflict. 

© Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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