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“GIVE MY CREATION LIFE!”
Dr. Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) in Young Frankenstein
(And the plea of screenwriters throughout the world)

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Yesterday I went to see Young Frankenstein  at the historic Oster Regent Theater in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  It was a good turnout for the 1974 film directed by Mel Brooks. The theater opened in 1910 as the Cotton Theater and is now home to the Cedar Falls Community Theater, as well has a venue for musical groups and occasionally old films.

Last month a bronze statue of Merle Blair standing behind a movie camera was unveiled. According to Melody Parker at the Waterloo Courier , “For many years, Merle Blair owned the Regent Theatre when it was a movie theater. Eventually Merle and Winifred Flair and the Beck Trust of Mason City gave the building as a gift to the Cedar Falls Community Theatre.” The sculpture of Blair was created by Loveland, Colorado artist Thelma Weresh.

A nice Iowa tie into showing Young Frankenstein the week of Halloween is that Gene Wilder (who co-wrote the script with Brooks and stars as Dr. Frankenstein) went to school at the University of Iowa and Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman (who plays Frau Blücher in the movie) was born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa.

P.S. As I’ve pointed out before, two movies have their roots in Cedar Falls. Both Robert Waller (The Bridges of Madison County) and Nancy Price (Sleeping with the Enemy) wrote their novels in Cedar Falls. And this blog started back in 2008 just a few blocks from the Oster Regent Theater.

Related Posts:
BOOM! and the Fat Lady from Kansas City (Gene Wilder quotes)
Sleeping with the Enemy Nancy Price quote 
Postcard #39 (UNI) Robert Waller quote

Scott W. Smith

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Ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in River City.
Ya Got Trouble. lyrics from The Music Man

There’s an Iowa kind of special
Chip-on-the-shoulder attitude.
Iowa Stubborn, lyrics from The Music Man

This weekend I went to see the Cedar Falls Community Theatre production of The Music Man. I had watched the movie before but had never seen the play. It was an overall great experience.

The story takes place in fictitious River City, Iowa which was inspired by Mason City, Iowa where the author of The Music Man, Meredith Willson, was raised. The Music Man first opened on Broadway in 1957 and won five Tony Awards and went on to be performed 1,375 times on its first Broadway run. (There have been two revivals of the play on Broadway, 1980 & 2000.) The film premiered in Mason City and today if you go there you can tour Willson’s boyhood home and visit The Music Man Square museum which celebrates Mason City’s musical tradition.

(As a sidenote, Mason City had a part in what Don McLean called “the day the music died.” In 1959, Buddy Holly and three others took off from the Mason City airport and shortly afterwards during a snow storm their plane crashed in a field eight miles away killing all four.)

Willson was actually nominated for two Oscar awards in his career, though neither were for his work on The Music Man, but rather for The Little Foxes (Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture) and the classic Chaplin film, The Great Dictator (Best Music, Original Score.) In 1958, the music from The Music Man beat out West Side Story to win a Grammy  Award (Best Original Cast Album).

The original play The Music Man starred Robert Preston as con man Professor Harold Hill. He won a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical and also starred in the 1962 movie. The local production here starred Gary Kroeger who was a writer/performer on Saturday Night Live between 1982-1985. I agree with the people who saw the play and know Kroeger (who lives here now)— it was a role made for him. Some people even remember when he had the lead in the same play back when he went to high school here. His co-star in the play is Kristin Teig Torres, who can be seen on the demo reel at RiverRun.tv from a project we shot a couple years ago.

And while I’ve been to plays in large theaters in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles there is something special to walking eight blocks from your home to downtown Cedar Falls to have dinner, and then watch a play in a restored 100 year old theatre. It’s nice to sit close enough to see the faces of actors you know who are performing words and songs written by someone who was raised an hour and a half away, knowing that that play has been performed and entertained people all over the world for more than 50 years.

So before the Field of Dreams, The Bridges of Madison Country, and Sleeping with the Enemy there was The Music Man to pave the way for future stories set in the quintessential heartland.

By the way, Nancy Price, who wrote the novel Sleeping with the Enemy, was at the performance Friday night which added a little extra reminder that every once in a while something other than corn comes out of the state of Iowa.

So wherever you live check out the community theater in your area. There’s magic and talent in community theaters all over this country. (I hear even Charlie Sheen is getting into the community theatre spirit by volunteering his time to work with a quaint small town in Colorado.) I think as films become less and less expensive to make you will not only see a growing regional film movement, but one that is the equivalent of community theater. Keep in mind that our local community theater raised $1.2 million to renovate a historic theater a few years ago, so there are people and businesses ready and willing to invest in the local arts community.

Oh, and speaking of The Music Man, remember a little kid named Ronny who played Winthrop Paroo in the 1962 movie? Hard to forget him singing, “O the wells Fargo wagon is a’comin’ down the road, O please let be for me.” He went on to act in a few more productions such as The Andy Griffith Show, American Graffiti and Happy Days. These days that young Oklahoma-born actor  is more well-known as the director Ron Howard.

On Saturday in Chicago he’ll be honored for a Career Achievement Award at the Chicago International Film Festival. And what a career it’s been—Apollo 13, Cocoon, Parenthood,  Splash, Frost/Nixon (Oscar Nomination), and two-Oscars wins for A Beautiful Mind (Best Director, Best Picture).

* The Music Man photo taken by Bill Sikula. More shots at www.facebook.com/osterregent

Scott W. Smith


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In the spirit of the Olympics, how do you think the state of Iowa would match-up against Hawaii? You may be surprised at the results. (Stick with me and I’ll tie it in with screenwriting.)

In a recent article I read on Yahoo! News written by Jeanna Bryner she reported on the happiest places to live in 2009. All 50 United States were graded on a well-being score.

Bryner writes, “The well-being score for each state is an average of six sub-categories, including: life evaluation (self-evaluation about your present life situation and anticipated one in five years); emotional health; work environment (such as job satisfaction); physical health; healthy behavior; basic access (access to healthcare, a doctor, a safe place to exercise and walk, as well as community satisfaction).

Who came out on top? Hawaii…but Iowa was close behind at #5. And if you add its neighbor just to the north, Minnesota which came in #4,  then Iowa/Minnesota make the best one/two connected states in the U.S. on the old happy meter. (Granted Hawaii is at a disadvantage there.) Actually four of the top ten states are in the Midwest with Kansas and North Dakota being the other states. Who knew?

So Hawaii edges out Iowa as far well-being. But lets put Cedar Falls, Iowa up against Maui. Well, I’m sure there are many ways to judge such a thing but only one of those places was chosen earlier this month as a “distinctive destination of 2010.” Yep, Cedar Falls. (See the article Cedar Falls receives rare honor from National Trust.)

I think we’re officially on the map. Last month Sports Illustrated did a feature on the local college basketball team (UNI) and last summer Good Morning America taped a segment  downtown.  Remember this is the town that Julia Roberts escapes to in the movie Sleeping with the Enemy. That novel was written in Cedar Falls by Nancy Price as was The Bridges of Madison Country when Robert Waller  lived in Cedar Falls. And the current issue of Rolling Stone magazine features an illustration of Sade that was created by local artist Gary Kelley. (And don’t forget the first screenwriting blog to win an Emmy was created in–of all places–Cedar Falls, Iowa.)

If you’re a screenwriter/filmmaker outside L.A. you probably have a chip on your shoulder. And it’s good to be reminded of people and places in your area of the world that have found some measure of local, regional, national or international success. Remember that “hope is a dangerous thing.” Isn’t it inspirational when you watch Olympic athletes who come from small middle of nowhere towns and villages around the world and stand on the world stage?

Focus on the prize. (And do the work when no one is watching.)

And if you’re ever in these parts stop by for a visit. (The above photo is for a client of mine The Black Hawk Hotel.) Here’s what the National Trust for Historic Preservation writes about Cedar Falls:

Situated in a picturesque bend in the Cedar River, Cedar Falls, Iowa offers an impressive mix of shopping, dining, entertainment and cultural activities, from eclectic shopping experiences along its historic Main Street to the many recreational opportunities in the surrounding forests, lakes and prairie preserves. Cedar Falls’ Main Street is a national model, a winner of the Great American Main Street Award that hums with activity nearly round the clock. In addition to its retail offerings, the historic downtown has been certified by the state of Iowa as an “Arts and Cultural District.”

P.S. If you’re looking to move to a happy place and you’re torn between Hawaii and Iowa (common problem)… you may want to compare housing prices.

Text & photo Copyright 2010 Scott W. Smith

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 “Looking back, I can’t believe that I—a housewife in Cedar Falls, Iowa–saw my poems and short stories appear in magazines, newspapers and books.”
                                                                                   Nancy Price
                                                                                   Sleeping with the Enemy 

How would you like to have something you’ve written be made into a movie, starring a major Hollywood actor, and see that film make over $100 million at the box office?

Sure that happened recently with University of Iowa graduate Diablo Cody and her Juno script, but it also happened to a writer with deeper Iowa roots when Nancy Price’s novel was turned into the Julia Roberts’ film “Sleeping with the Enemy.”

In case you’ve forgotten, the sleepy little town that Roberts’ character ran away to in order to escape from her abusive husband was Cedar Falls, Iowa. Price wrote the book in Cedar Falls where she has spent a good deal of her life.

I heard Price speak this week at the Waterloo Public Library and I thought her story would encourage you in your writing. But beware her story is one of not only talent, but one of patience.

From the time she won a poetry contest at age 14 to when Sleeping with the Enemy was released 50 years elapsed. As in five decades.  While the movie differs from her novel she is thankful that it brought many people to her book, and that has resulted in the book being translated into 18 languages.

Her book is actually a more complex look at spousal abuse and in her words “really about people helping people.”  She still gets letters from women who say the book “changed their lives.” “It’s wonderful to get those letters,” said Price.

Price, who also does illustrations,  understood the Hollywood game and their desire for more of a blockbuster film. She said she had nothing to do with writing the script. 

Her book was published the same year Fatal Attraction was a huge hit and she also had the good fortune of having Julia Roberts commit to the project before Pretty Women was released which pushed Roberts to the top of the pack. “She really did help me out,” said Price.

Though as is often the case many people feel the book is better than the movie but she was also fortunate to have Ron Bass write the screenplay fresh off his Oscar as one of the screenwriters of Rain Man.

The strength of novels is you can reveal what characters are thinking which is hard to translate onto film. I found this quote from Bass explaining his process of adapting a novel into a screenplay: “My basic view of film is that, literature is about what happens within people, while film is more about what happens between people. So the basic tool for me is the two-shot, a scene between two people interacting in a way that illuminates for them and for us who they are, what they want, and where they’re going.”

Of course the strength of movies is visual story telling. So while Price could write 30 pages on how abused the wife has been over the years the movie can condense that into two shots. One where we see the obsessive-compulsive husband upset that the bath towels aren’t lined up correctly and another where the wife flinches at dinner table like an abused puppy does when you try to pet them. With those two shots the audience gets a strong glimpse of what she is going through.

The movie as a thriller is a melodrama but its theme of abuse is just as meaningful and relevant to address today. If you’re looking for a story to write here’s a challenge, take the abusive situation in Sleeping with the Enemy and add a couple kids to a story. That will amp up the conflict and choices the wife has to make. (And that is what many women face today and the core reason why they stay in those relationships.) Show that women’s strength emerge and you’ll be on your way to getting letters from women thanking you as well.  

And if you write that as a book first you increase your odds of getting the movie made. Not only because women buy 68% of books (according to Publisher Weekly) but because there are over 150,000 books published every year verses less than a thousand feature movies made each year. If your novel is good it may get bought by a producer even before the book is published.

But getting a book published is no slam dunk to getting a movie made. Price said that only 1 in 800 books get made into a movie and that she was fortunate her agent became the head of 20th Century Fox. “It’s just a matter of luck, it really is.”

I think it was Samuel Goldwyn who once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Price paid her dues. Between writing as a child to when the movie got made in 1991 she earned a B.A. in English and art from Cornell College and a Master’s Degree at the University of Northern Iowa, studied writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop, raised three children, had her work rejected by the New York Times 75 times, had a string of 60 short stories and poetry published, and had three novels published.

She was 53-years-old when her first novel was published and 62 when Sleeping with the Enemy was published so she was far from an overnight success. The idea for that book came to her as she thought, “If you’re going to be chased by someone, who would be the worst—someone who knows you.”

The book took three years to write and she usually rewrites the first few pages of her books 30-40 times because “that is where you need to make it clear what the story is about and who it’s about.”

Price explained that one of the biggest differences in the movie from the book is “all the characters in the book are poor and in the movie they’re rich.” So in the movie when Julia Roberts’ character gets caught by her neighbor plucking apples it’s because she had a late night desire to bake a pie, where in the book she steals the apples because she is broke and hungry. Maybe another concession to Fatal Attraction where everyone is also rich.

 

Price is still writing. She laments the lack of places for new writers to have their writings published because magazines no longer buy and publish short stories like they did back in the day and most of the major book publishers are looking for the blockbuster sellers from a small list of writers. (Many of who have ghostwriters writing their books.)

Price is self-published through Malmarie Press. You can purchase her books and learn more about Price at her website Nancy Price Books. On her site you’ll find some writing tricks she shares:

Do you stare in despair at the blank first page of your new novel? Don’t. Find some 4 X 6 cards and begin to put down scenes from the new book that you’ve imagined…characters that have seemed real to you…places you have wanted to describe…conversations you’ve heard in your head…each on a new card. When you have a collection of these, put them on the floor and push them around with your toe. Do some of them seem to clump together and act friendly? Can you imagine putting some new writing between this one and that one? You’re on your way.
                                                                                                           Nancy Price

And perhaps you can help solve a little mystery for Nancy Price. Remember that poetry contest she won when she was 14? Well, part of the prize was she got to attend a Detroit Tigers baseball game and meet one of the players. If you know who the player was email me (or Nancy via the email on her website) and she can put that mystery to rest. (There is a photo I’ll try to track down that would be a key clue.)

 

Words and Photos Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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