Posts Tagged ‘Mississippi’

And I’d never been 
West of New Orleans or East of Pensacola
My only contact with the outside world
Was an RCA Victrola
Jimmy Buffett/Life is Just a Tire Swing 

“If I had grown up in Montgomery or Birmingham with less access to the beaches, bays, and rivers, I would be a completely different person.”
Lucy Buffett


Halfway between New Orleans and Pensacola sits a little town with a long name—Pascagoula. (That’s almost as much fun to say as Yazoo City.) Though I’d never been to Pascagoula, Mississippi before Tuesday, it’s doubtful there would even be a blog titled Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places without an event that happened one Christmas day in Pascagoula.

Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett was born on December 25, 1946 in Pascagoula. I bought my first Buffett album at the ripe age of 15 years old. At that point in my life I had only been to three states (if you include a stopover at the Atlanta airport). In fact, most of my life was lived on a dead-end street in Central Florida. But it was on that street, in a cement block house, that I sat in my bedroom with Koss headphones on and listened to Buffett’s music that opened up a world of storytelling.

Stories about pirates, Paris,  New Orleans, Tony Lama boots, and Patsy Cline music became influences in my life.

Reading departure signs in some big airport
Reminds me of the places I’ve been
Visions of good times that brought so much pleasure
Makes me want to go back again
Jimmy Buffett/ Changes In Latitudes, Changes In Attitudes

Eventually I made my way off the dead-end street to all 50 states and to the far side of the world. Found my own adventures sailing in Key West, flying in a sea plane over the Amazon River, and riding a camel in the middle east. All inspired by a guy born in Pascagoula. An unlikely place.

Inspiration is funny that way. A guy born in Tupelo, Mississippi (Elvis) inspired a guy from Pascagoula/Fairhope/Mobile (Buffett) . A guy from Lubbock, Texas (Buddy Holly) inspired a guy from Hibbing/Duluth, Minnesota (Bob Dylan). And they all have roots in the Delta Blues. And the epicenter of the Delta Blues is in Clarksdale, Mississippi where Highway 49 and Highway 61 meet at the famous Crossroads.

And the main influences of Delta Blues musicians were hard times, alcohol, and gospel music. (What good can come from Bethlehem?) That and a good deal of them came from Mississippi. Here’s just a handful of the key blues players and where they’re from in Mississippi; Robert Johnson (Hazlehurst), Bo Diddley (McCombs), Elmore James (Richland in Holmes County), Muddy Waters (Issaquena County) and B.B. King (Itta Bena).

I’m fortunate to not get much criticism on this blog, but one that I’ve heard goes along the lines of “Who cares where writers come from? Everyone in Hollywood comes from somewhere else? What’s the big deal?” There is no big deal if you’re writing cookie-cutter, contrived screenplays. But you if want to write something special, your roots and influences are all you have. That’s what sets you apart. And that’s true if you’re in Hollywood, or if you’re in Austin like screenwriter Jeff Nichols (Writing “Mud”). It’s true of Pat Conroy novels and Tennessee Williams plays.

Lastly, as I drove home to Florida this week after 10 days on the road working on various photo and video gigs I made a stop a Lucy Buffett’s Lulu’s in Gulf Shores, Alabama. Lucy is Jimmy Buffett’s sister and has her own little empire cooking down in lower Alabama. While I had a great trout dinner in North Carolina, the best meal on the whole trip was a simple flounder meal at Lucy B. Goode overlooking Homeport Marina. It was a fitting stop on the tail end of a trip that really started one Christmas day in Pascagoula.


P.S. BTW—Mississippi not only produced some great blues artists but other people who have been some of the most influential in their fields. Here’s a list I came up with quickly: Tennessee Williams (Columbus, MS), James Earl Jones (Arkabutla), Oprah Winfrey (Kosciusko), Jim Henson (Greenville), and Jerry Rice (Starkville).  And Morgan Freeman has a home  in Charelston, Mississippi and owns the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Lotta mojo still in Mississippi.

Related Post:

Jimmy Buffett in Iowa (Part 1)
Revisiting Highway 61 Revisited (2.0)
Muscle Shoals Music & Movie
The Outsider Advantage

Scott W. Smith

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“For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love.”
The Optimist’s Daughter written by Eudora Welty
(And included on Welty’s headstone in Jackson, Mississippi)


Pulitzer Prize winning writer Eudora Welty (1909-2001) was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She earned an English degree from the University of Wisconsin, studied advertising at Columbia in New York City, before working for a radio station in Jackson and as a WPA photographer in Mississippi. Her literary career formally began in 1936 when  Death of a Traveling Salesman was published, which incase you’re wondering was written about 15 years before Arthur Miller’s landmark play Death of a Salesman. 

“He pulled the brake. But it did not hold, though he put all his strength into it. The car, tipped toward the edge, rolled a little. Without doubt, it was going over the bank. 

He got out quietly, as though some mischief had been done him and he had his dignity to remember. He lifted his bag and sample case out, set them down, and stood back and watched the car roll over the edge. He heard something – not the crash he was listening for, but a slow, unuproarious crackle. Rather distastefully he went to look over, and he saw that his car had fallen into a tangle of immense grapevines as thick as his arm, which caught it and held it, rocked it like a grotesque child in a dark cradle, and then, as he watched, concerned somehow that he was not still inside it, released it gently to the ground. ”
Eudora Welty
Death of a Traveling Salesman

More shorts stories, essays and novels followed and she was soon able to write full time. She was on staff with the New York TImes her writings led to speaking engagements at Harvard University and abroad. From 1960 until her death in 2001 she lived in Jackson, and her family home which I photographed on Monday is now known as the Eudora Welty House (virtual tour with link). The house has been called, “one of the most intact literary houses in America in terms of its authenticity. Its exterior, interior, and furnishings are as they were in 1986 when Welty made the decision to bequeath her home to the State of Mississippi: paintings, photographs, objects d’art, linens, furniture, draperies, rugs, and, above all, thousands of books in their original places. With virtually every wall lined with books, it is evident that this family of readers valued the written word.”

It is in that Tudor Revival home, across the street from Belhaven College,  is where Welty wrote The Optimist’s Daughter, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1973. A friend of my who went to Belhaven in the 80s said it was not unusual to see Welty outside her home and around town.

According to the The Eudora Welty Foundation they fund “a Eudora Welty Scholar; develops teaching resources that will expand appreciation of Eudora’s writing and photography; supports study of her work; assists in preserving Eudora’s home and garden; and hosts seminars, competitions, and festivals for young writers, established authors, and the public.”

The first book I ever read of Welty’s was One Writer’s Beginning which I just learned is available in audio in Wetly’s own voice. Lastly, several of her stories were made into films and TV movies including most recently the short film The Purple Hat (2010) written and directed by Gregory Doucette.

P.S. It is not known what Jackson (if any) was the inspiration for the Johnny Cash and June Carter song Jackson, but I did find this interesting bit of info from Billy Edd Wheeler, one of the writers of Jackson who just happened to also Yale’s School of Drama as a playwriting student:

Jackson came to me when I read the script for Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (I was too broke to see the play on Broadway). You know, the way the man and woman go at each other. When I played it for Jerry, he said “Your first verses suck,” or words to that effect. “Throw them away and start the song with your last verse, ‘We got married in a fever, hotter than a pepper sprout.'” When I protested to Jerry that I couldn’t start the song with the climax, he said, “Oh, yes you can.” So I rewrote the song and thanks to Jerry’s editing and help, it worked. I recorded the song on my first Kapp Records album, with Joan Sommer, an old friend from Berea, Kentucky, singing the woman’s part. Johnny Cash learned the song from that album, “A New Bag Of Songs”, produced by Jerry and Mike.
Billy Edd Wheeler (who wrote Jackson) with Jerry Leiber

Here’s the song Jackson recorded for The Johnny Cash Show, a program that U2’s Bono has said was an early inspiration for him:

Scott W. Smith

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Yazoo City— can you even say the name without smiling?  Yazoo City is not really a town you go out of your way to visit—unless you know the work of writer Willie Morris (1934-1999). That’s what caused me to make a slight detour there Sunday afternoon. Yazoo City is located about an hour’s drive north west from the Mississippi state capital of Jackson. It’s not really convenient to I-20 and I-55. Though it has been called “The gateway to the Delta,” so it is one of the ways you can get to the famed Highway 61.

“Its name is Yazoo City, from the Yazoo Rover which flows by it—a muddy winding stream that takes in the Tallahatchie, the Sunflower, and countless other smaller creeks and river before it finally empties itself into the Mississippi a few miles north of Vicksburg. ‘Yazoo,’ far from being the funny name that many think it, always meant something a little dark and crazy for me. It is an old Indian name that means ‘Death’ or Waters of the Dead,’ for the the Indians who once loved here as fighters and hunters had died of some strange and dreadful disease. Stephen Forster at first meant his song to be ‘Way Down Upon the Yazoo River,’ but he found out the meaning of the word and felt he had been tricked. Years later when I left to go to college, I was called ‘Yazoo’ —such was the spell the very name had on you long after you left it, for its people have always been given to somber fancies and the most peculiar fears and hallucinations.”
Willie Morris
Yazoo: Integration in a Deep-Southern Town

Some of the others book by Morris include My Mississippi,  The Ghost of Medgar Evans, A Tale of Race, Murder, Mississippi, and Hollywood, and The Courting of Marcus Dupree. But the book and/or movie that people are most familar with is My Dog Skip. I love that movie. It stars a young Frankie Muniz, Kevin Bacon, Diane Lane—and a couple dogs playing Skip. The script was written by Gail Gilchriest (based on Morris’ book) and directed by Jay Russell.

Yazoo City today doesn’t look much like the Yazoo City in the film which is set in the 1940s. I was only in town long enough to take a few photos, but it appears its former glory has departed. But they’re working on it. And people have been living there since the 1600s, and the area has survived floods, tornados, a yellow fever epidemic, and the town being burned by Union troops during the Civil War—so I imagine the small town will endure. And more stories will be told. Commedian Jerry Clower often made mention of Yahoo City where in once lived. One of his albums was even called From Yazoo City—Mississippi Talkin.’

P.S. The movie Miss Firecracker was shot in Yazoo City, and Yazoo City also gets a mentioned in both O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Crossroads.

Scott W. Smith

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“Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad—Read!”
William FaulknerOxford

Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Faulkner moved to Oxford, Mississippi when he was three and after a long life in literature, and a short career as a screenwriter in Hollywood, Faulkner died at age 64 and is buried in Oxford.

I had been to Oxford before, but never on a college football Saturday, so I’d never seen The Grove in all its glory. The Grove has been called “the Holy Grail of tailgating sites” on the campus of the University of Mississippi. One saying at Ole Miss is, “We may not win every game, but we never lose a party.” They, in fact, didn’t win the game against Texas A & M which was decided by a field goal as time ran out. But before the game I got to witness what sets The Grove apart from other pregame atmospheres. The China ware, the chandeliers, and some of the students wearing jackets and ties.

As people made their way into the stadium I headed over to The Square in Oxford where they have a statue of Faulkner. I stopped in Square Books where I took the above photo that is a parade photos of writers and their work. It seemed to me to a fitting postcard that represents Oxford at its best.

A darker chapter of Oxford can be found in the lyrics of the Bob Dylan song, Oxford Town surrounding the events that happened in 1962 when James Meredith, a black man,  enrolled at the University of Mississippi. But Oxford today is more than Faulkner and race relationships and is home to many artist and writers.  Author John Grisham went to law school at the University of Mississippi and he lived in Oxford for a decade before moving to Virginia. So if you’ve ever enjoyed one of Grisham’s books or movies from his books, you can thank Ole Miss and Oxford for shaping his legal and literary mind.

Over the years several movies have been made in Oxford including several based on Faulkner’s novels.

One more recent connection to Oxford and Hollywood was the movie The Blind Side (2009) for which Sandra Bullock won an Oscar.  That movie centers around the true story of Michael Oher and his transformation from a young homeless teenager to an NFL football player.  He attended Ole Miss. In the movie they handle his steep educational learning curve in a kind of Rocky running up the steps montage. But in the book of the same name by Michael Lewis (which was the basis of the movie) you get a deeper grasp of what it took for Oher to raise his .09 GPA in high school to be eligible for college.  His story is an amazing one, but I think his graduating with a degree in criminal justice in 2009 was an even greater feat than playing football in the NFL.

Scott W. Smith

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“Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
John LennonDSC_1067

If you want proof that big things can come from somewhat small and unlikely places I have just two words to share; Tupelo. Elvis.

According to the website for the birthplace of Elvis Presley here’s the history behind the building above I photographed Saturday afternoon in Tupelo:

Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi on January 8, 1935 to Vernon and Gladys Presley. Born in a two-room house built by his father, grandfather and uncle, Elvis was one of twin brothers born to the Presleys. His brother, Jessie Garon was stillborn. Elvis grew up in Tupelo surrounded by his extended family including his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Financially, times were hard on Vernon and Gladys, and they had to move out of the house where Elvis was born when he was only a few years old for lack of payment.

Elvis and his family moved to Memphis when Elvis was a teenager and they lived in boarding houses and public housing until Elvis graduated from Humes High School in 1953. In 1953 he paid to record a couple of songs at Sun Records, and soon afterwards people were paying him to record. His first RCA single, Heartbreak Hotel, was a number one hit and his families financial problems were over. (In fact, even though Elvis died in 1977, his estate still makes $50 million a year.)

Depending on what source you use Elvis sold an estimated one billion albums. He also made 31 movies including Jailhouse Rock (1957) written by Guy Trosper and Nedrick Young.

Elvis said that his favorite film he made was King Creole (1958) written by Herbert Baker and Michael V. Gazzo based on the novel A Stone for Danny Fisher written by Harold Robbins. (Robbins also wrote the novel The Carpetbaggers, which became the film Nevada Smith—one of the inspirations for the Indiana Jones character.)

But remember before he came one of the top icons of the 20th century, Elvis had humble beginnings it that little house in Tupelo.

Scott W. Smith

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Lord, that 61 Highway
It’s the longest road I know
61 Highway Blues
Fred McDowell

And he said, “Yes, I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61″
Bob Dylan
Highway 61

In light of Bob Dylan playing two miles from my house tomorrow night here in Cedar Falls, Iowa I thought I’d give a nod to the man from Minnesota who influenced a generation. (And, yes, I have a ticket for the concert.)

Dylan and Highway 61 both are deeper roots to what Screenwriting from Iowa is all about. (Yes, technically a stretch of Highway 61 runs though Iowa, but Dylan’s reference as well as this blog’s name is more metaphorical.)

Where does really talent come from? Everywhere. Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota which happens to be a stop on Highway 61 as it goes from New Orleans all the way north to Wyoming, Minnesota. (Contrary to the lyrics in 61 Highway Blues, Highway 61 goes nowhere near New York City.) Highway 61 has been called “The Blues Highway” because of the southern region from which blues music sprang up before it flowed into the world.

At the corner of Highway 61  and Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi is where legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange to become a master blues musician. Lots of talent has driven up and down Highway 61 including Muddy Waters, “the father of the blues,” who was born in the Mississippi Delta near Highway 61 between Clarksville and Vicksburg.

Muddy Waters not only influenced Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Elvis, but rock n’ roll, jazz, folk, R&B,  country and who knows what else. His 1950 song Rollin’ Stone is where the Rolling Stones took their name.  And of course, Waters & other bluesmen influenced Dylan. So that’s the Highway 61 connection.

Dylan spent most of his youth in the mining town of Hibbing in northern Minnesota. A group of close-knit Jewish people from Eastern Europe were drawn to opportunities in the area known as the Mesabi Iron Range. (See David Mamet’s connection to storytelling and Eastern European Jews.) The ore from the area once made the small town of Hibbing very wealthy. But by the time Dylan (then known as Robert /Bobby Zimmerman) was a teenager in the 1950s the mining town’s heyday was over. But it was fertile ground to listen to blues and country on the radio and learn to play the piano and guitar. Dylan graduated from Hibbing High School in 1959.

Zimmerman became Bob Dylan while playing the folk music circuit in the Minneapolis area known as Dinkytown by the University of Minnesota. Some have said the name change was a nod to Welch poet Dylan Thomas. (“Do not go gentle into that good night.”) That was 50 years ago. Just a few years before he would record the album Highway 61 Revisited, which the magazine The Rolling Stone listed as the #4 on its list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. And on the magazine’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone (from the album Highway 61 Revisited) comes is at number one.

Not bad for a kid from Hibbing.

P.S. I’ve been listening to Dylan’s songs before screenwriter Diablo Cody was born. But I should point out that she was not only the inspiration behind me starting this blog in ’08 —Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)— but she has ties to the same artistic, literary, and musical turf that Dylan tread in Minneapolis.

Related Posts:
Highway 61 Meets A1A (Dylan & Buffett)
Off-Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)

Scott W. Smith

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The Silence of the Lambs is the most authentically terrifying movie since Psycho.
Robin Wood
Film Reference

“Do we seek out things to covet? … No. We begin by coveting what we see every day.”
Hannibal Lecter

It’s hard to believe that The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was released almost 20 years ago.  A few days ago I watched the five time Oscar-winner for the first time in at least a decade and it hasn’t lost any sparkle—or creepiness.  The movie is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Thomas Harris.  Harris’ roots are in the deep south, born in Jackson, Tennessee and raised in the small town of Rich, Mississippi. In 1988, his book The Silence of the Lambs won the Bram Stroker Award (Novel) presented by the Horror Writers Association.

So the story had a lot going for it when screenwriter Ted Tally set out to turn the 352-page novel into a 126-page screenplay. When Tally was finished he had crafted a well-tuned script and walked away win an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

“The first thing I do is break down the book scene by scene. That’s my method of working, the way I approach a screenplay adaptation. When I have all that broken down, I’ll try to establish and define the line of events; this event happens, then this event, then this and this happens, all the time trying to keep the integrity of the novel, or source material.

What’s important for me is finding what sticks out in my mind. That’s when I’ll put those scenes down on cards, one by one, just getting the story line down, concentrating on the needs of the adaptation.

Adapting The Silence of the Lambs, for example, I knew this had to be Clarice Starling’s (Jodie Foster’s) story. Even though the book goes inside Hannibal Lecter’s mind, inside Crawford’s (Scott Glenn’s) mind, inside Jame Gumb’s mind, the book basically follows the character of Clarice.

So, this had to be Clarice’s movie. Anything she’s not in, any scene that may be extraneous to furthering Clarice’s story, had to be cut, if possible. If it’s not cut, then it has to be kept to an absolute minimum. This story is her journey. Approaching it this way meant automatically reducing the book.

But keeping a determined focus on Clarice meant losing a lot of wonderful things that were in the book. Jack Crawford’s dying wife, for example. I bitterly tried to hang on to that in the first couple of drafts, but by the third draft I realized it wouldn’t work; so, it had to go. I had to be ruthless in terms of what I kept and what I didn’t keep.”
Screenwriter  Ted Tally
Ted Tally —On Adaptation/ Syd Field.com

Anthony Hopkins, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal, holds the record in the Best Actor category for shortest on screen time (under 17 minutes). Hopkins’ acting lesson: “How do you play Hannibal Lecter? Well just don’t move. Scare people by being still.”

Though Hopkins was an understudy to Sir Laurence Olivier at the Royal National Theater in London it may have been his unbringing that help shaped his role as Lecter. On IMDB Hopkins is quoted as saying, “My own father was a tough man. He was a pretty red hot guy but he was also cold. He was also slightly disappointed in me because I was not a good kid as a school boy, you know. But I learned from it, I liked that coldness, because it was harsh. And he taught me to be tough. So I know how to be tough. I know how to be strong. I know how to be ruthless. It’s part of my nature. I wouldn’t be an actor if I wasn’t.”

The Silence of the Lambs also won an Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathan Demme), and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Jodie Foster) making it the last film to pull off an Oscar sweep in the top five categories. The seeds of which were planted all those years ago when Thomas Harris was reading Hemingway as a youngster in the fertile literary land of the Mississippi. It probably didn’t hurt that he earned an English degree at Baylor University and worked as a crime reporter in Texas and New York.

Scott W. Smith

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