Posts Tagged ‘NYU’

Sean Baker is officially the poster filmmaker for Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places this year.  Here’s an abridged version of what I wrote years ago, “I believe there are many great stories waiting to be told outside of L.A. …I hope this blog  helps you tell those stories and encourages you, especially if you feel like you live in an unusual place in the middle-of-nowhere.” That could be West Des Moines, West Africa, or even West Hollywood (where Baker calls home these days.)

Baker grew up in New Jersey enjoying big Hollywood movies like Die Hard, RoboCop (1987), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This is the twist in the road that’s led him to making six non-big Hollywood feature films over the past 20 years including The Florida Project:

At the tail end of high school and beginning of my four years at NYU, I was gravitating toward independent films — the work of Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, and Steven Soderbergh. Just being in NYC was a film education on its own. I’d go to MoMA, Lincoln Center, Anthology Film Archives, and all these great New York art theaters that played the best of world cinema and independent film, and I started falling in love with movies that leaned more on human stories than special effects. By the time I graduated NYU, I understood that I couldn’t afford to go out and make an action blockbuster like Die Hard as my first film. And creatively, my love for independent movies was leading me someplace different.”
Writer/director/editor Sean Baker

Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, and Steven Soderbergh have all been covered on this blog over the years. Of those filmmakers the one film that I think has some crossover to The Florida Project is Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, which was shot partially in Florida and entirely in master shots.

Another independent film that comes to mind that has a connection to The Florida Project (and that’s off most people’s radar) is Ulee’s Gold (1997). That film by writer/director Victor Nunez is as the trailer says, “The story of a family on the edge.” It was the first film I recall showing the gritty side of Orlando. And Peter Fonda received an Oscar-nomination for his performance, as I think Willem Dafoe will in The Florida Project.

Scott W. Smith

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Today we pick up part six of the interview with Greg DePaul, screenwriter, teacher, and author of Bring the Funny:

Scott W. Smith: Richard Pryor once said all comedy is rooted in pain. In your book you talk about mean comedy, can you unpack that?

Screenwriter Greg DePaul (Saving Silverman): Certainly comedy has cruelty. You’re always going to have people doing mean things to each other because that makes us laugh. If you’ve ever watched Larry, Moe, and Curly [The Three Stooges] you know how much mean stuff can make people laugh. I mean Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, and Daffy Duck shooting their faces off with shotguns is pretty visceral isn’t it? That’s just an element of comedy there’s no doubt about it. What I try to do in Bring the Funny is give you the tools you’re going to use to speed up the journey, to learn things quicker, and just write better. As a teacher, I also focus a lot on the whole world of the dramatic writer, because I think the best writers—especially those in TV—have a dramatic approach. Most films schools don’t teach dramatic writing, they only teach screenwriting. I think that’s a mistake.

Scott: By dramatic writing, you mean Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov?

Greg: Dramatic writing is playwriting, feature screenwriting, TV writing, and sketch comedy writing. Those are all dramatic writing. Where you use characters in a dramatic presentation. That’s a separate world from prose. Certainly, a screenwriter and a playwright have more in common with each other than either has with a prose writer. For my students, I talk about how screenwriters are a little bit like novelists, and the TV writers are a little bit more like playwrights. And if you look at the writing staffs of TV shows, especially sitcoms, you’re going to find a lot of playwrights.

If you look at NYU – how the Tisch School works — which I think is the absolute best school for dramatic writers. So you learn about the Greeks, and Ibsen, and all those people, and then branch out and take a screenwriting class, you take more playwriting classes, you take a TV class, but the foundation is dramatic writing; characters, drama, conflicts.

Scott: Certainly part of Aaron Sorkin’s success is being rooted in dramatic writing, and he’s someone who has worked in theater, television, and features. In fact, when he wrote Social Network he said that it was basically a Greek play. And it does appear that TV has become the place for the kinds of drama that feature films were doing back in the ‘70s.

Now you’re based in New York, my blog is called Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, and I know you’re a fan of “get to L.A. if you can,” But in your opinion, when is the best time to go to L.A.?

Greg: Look I didn’t come back to the East Coast by choice. My career went up and down twice, I came back east because I have two children, that’s it. And it’s a lot easier to raise kids in suburban New Jersey than it is in Los Angeles. If you want good public schools for instance. It’s a night and day difference. So I came out here because what I wanted was the family environment and all of that. So for screenwriting the answer is L.A., L.A., L.A. and there’s really no exception to the rule. But if you can’t be there, you can’t be there, that’s life.

What I tell people is if you’re going to spend years writing and you live in Massachusetts, which is not off the edge of the world—it’s a sophisticated place, it’s just not L.A., then you shouldn’t just be writing screenplays. Come on, write novels, you can be a novelist anywhere. The book industry is used to people writing from Alabama, or Arkansas, or having the local flavor of Nebraska. There’s no prejudice against you there. And it’s not built around contacts.

If you’re in New York, because you’re a playwright, or because you’re a journalist, and you also want to write screenplays, fine. Now that I’m in NYC, I’m also a playwright. Most of the creative writing I’m doing this minute is playwriting and working on my next book. And more recently I’ve begun working on a screenplay.

But if you just want to write screenplays or do TV writing you have to go to L.A. and you should go there before you’re ready. And the reason is you’re not going to show up in L.A. and have everybody go, “Great, give me your screenplay.” It’s going to take years of making contacts while you’re there to get open minds. So you might as well go there and do your maturation there, because while you’re maturing and writing badly, and hopefully improving, you’re going to be meeting people. It’s going to take a few years to meet people who will read you. If you wait until you’re 35 and now say, “Now, I’m a great writer,” you’re going to have to prove yourself there. You have to develop fans. That’s why writers groups are so important. Other writers have to notice you and take note of you.

In Bring the Funny I talk about that a lot. If you’re an agent on Venice Boardwalk or you’re in Times Square New York, or Santa Monica Promenade, and you’re walking around and looking for an act. One guy’s juggling, one guy’s carving something in sand, and one guy’s telling jokes, and another singing, the guy who has no one around him—you’re not going to walk up to that guy. So you have to develop a circle of friends around you as a writer that gets you attention, that builds your contacts, and that’s when you start bumping into agents. Maybe you have a friend who likes your work, he or she already has an agent and because they know and like your work they say, “You know, I can introduce you to my agent.” Well, think how long that took to develop. That doesn’t happen the day you arrive in L.A.

Greg teaches screenwriting at NYU and The New School, wrote the book Bring the Funny, and blogs at bringthefunny.com. His writing group is Stillwaterwriters.com.

Scott W. Smith


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“If the current rates of growth keep up in China, the country will surpass North America as the world’s largest film market in early 2017.”
The Hollywood Reporter/3.1.16

Back in June, screenwriter/playwright and NYU instructor Greg DePaul took the time with me to have an hour and a half conversation that ended up being quite a sweeping overview of the ups and downs of being a working screenwriter. We talked abut his movies (Saving Silverman, Bride Wars), about his book Bring the Funny:The Essential Commpanion for the Comedy Screenwriter, and what it’s like to sit in front of Kate Hutson and pitch your idea. I will chunk out the interview here over the next week or two. We started off taking about the Chinese version of his original idea that was first produced in the United States.


Scott W. Smith: Do you have a Chinese poster of Bride Wars?

Greg DePaul: I wish I did. I’m going to do that. I’m going to buy one and frame it.

Scott : Have you ever seen that version?

Greg: I have. It’s just funny that it even exists. I’m credited on the poster and in the film.

Scott: And you got paid, correct?

Greg: I got paid. I had to tell them to pay me, but I did get it. I have a friend Scott Abramovitch (The Calling), a writer/director, and he contacted me and said, “I see your movie is getting made in China.”

A handful of years before that I got contacted through my lawyer at the time and the studios said they wanted to make Bride Wars in India. They had two Indian stars lined up. I said, “Great, my contract says I get a pretty large amount for a remake—foreign or domestic. And they said, “Okay, but we’re not going to make it unless you cut your rate and make that change to the contract. Agree to take five cents on the dollar.” So they were going to cut out 95% to what they’d agreed to in my contract. And I told my lawyer, “No, don’t do it.” I sent my lawyer an email saying this is insulting and that they’re a bunch of jerks or something. And he was a terrible lawyer. He kicked that email to them, because he just wanted me to sign. They walked and we never made a deal. And I didn’t hear about it for five years. And I didn’t want to tell my wife because I thought she’d say “fine, take the small amount of money, we need the money.”

Scott: And it would have had a great Bollywood musical ending.

Greg: Exactly, that would have been awesome. The studio was all upset with me and they yelled at my lawyer, and blah, blah, blah. And then two or three years ago Abramovitch contacted me again and said, “I see your movie is getting made in China.” And I go to Variety online and there it was saying they were making Bride Wars in China with director Tony Chan. So I called a different lawyer, a friend of mine and an excellent attorney in L.A., Ron Levin, and I said, “Ron can you handle this for me?” And he called them up and sent them an old contract I had and told them, “You owe Greg this money”; and they paid the full amount.

Scott: Maybe Bride Wars will end up being your Grease. I read that everyday somewhere in the world Grease is playing and the writers are getting residuals.

P.S. Author and futurist Kevin Kelly has said in light of China’s 1.367 billion (2013) population verses 316 million people in the United States that the U.S. is “statistically insignificant.” The largest film studio in the world, Hengdian World Studios, located in the Zhejiang Province is the largest film studio in the world. When you add to the mix that both India and Nollywood (Cinema of Nigeria) now produce more films than Hollywood you can see there is an interesting shift happening in global cinema. (A topic I will explore on this blog throughout 2017.)

To support this blog, and further interviews, please become a patron at Patreon.

Screenwriter Greg DePaul Q&A (Part 2)

Bring the Funny website

Related article:
Is ‘Chinawood’ the New Hollywood?/BBC 

Scott W. Smith

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“My mantra is ‘just keep writing.’ If it’s not good throw it out.”
Screenwriter Sheldon Turner (X-Men: First Class, The Longest Yard)

“I still read five newspapers a day. I try to read a book week, a script a day, all those things. At the end of the day, I believe it’s like the 90 mph fastball—you either have it or you don’t. You can hone those skills…but that’s why I don’t get invited to those screenwriting conferences. Because ultimately my first question is ‘what are you guys doing here?’ Because in a way they’re teaching everyone to do the same thing. And if you look at it from the perspective of a producer, or an executive who’s gotta take home ten scripts in a weekend, or a night take home three scripts, you’ve got to do something to differentiate yourself.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air)
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters (Part 1) interview with Mike De Luca

P.S. Two things that differentiates Turner in Hollywood are #1 while he went to NYU like many screenwriters and filmmakers, he’s actually a graduate of the law school, and #2 he gets up everyday earlier than any other screenwriter I’ve ever read about.

“I have a very specific schedule. I get up at 3:57 [a.m.] everyday. I have my whole routine; I’ll write for an hour and then go to the gym and work out for an hour and a half or two hours. And it’s for no other reason other than self loathing, which I find to be the most productive part of my day. I always say I’m motivated by guilt and fear, and also because I don’t take the middle ground well. I’m an extremist. So if I’m not getting up at 3:57 I’m getting up at 1:00 [p.m]. And it’s one of the good things and bad things about being a writer, unless you’re disciplined it’s very easy to fall by the wayside and sort of be the ultimate procrastinator and put things off—So I go to the other extreme.”
Sheldon Turner

Related post:
Self-Study Screenwriting  “I never took a (screenwriting) course, what I did was read every screenplay I could get my hands on.” Sheldon Turner
Finding Your Voice
Shakespeare vs. Ira Glass (Quote for those who don’t have a 90 mph fastball; “I also think you can learn to be a good writer. Like I was a bad writer, actively bad, and I willed myself to get better.”—Ira Glass)
Preparing for an Oscar Speech (David Seidler-Style) Only took him about 70 years to hone his writing. 
The Breakfast Club for Writers (2.0) “I began training for the writing life in 1951, getting up at 5:00 A.M. and writing for two hours before going to work at an ad agency.”—Elmore Leonard

Scott W. Smith

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(Opening scene of the Little Miss Sunshine script (PDF dated 10.9.03) written by Michael Arndt.)

“I didn’t really expect that the script [Little Miss Sunshine] was going anywhere. I mean, I was hoping to get an agent out of it but I didn’t bother to register it just because I didn’t think anyone was going to see it. And then I had a friend of mine who was represented by the Endeavor Agency [now WME] and that was sort of my one hope. She read it and liked it and said, ‘Can I give this to my agent?’ so I said, ‘Yes, please do.’ And like six weeks went by and I thought no one had read it and it had falling through the cracks. And I was really unhappy because I’d spent a whole year writing it and I thought I’d have to go back and get a day job again. It was a Saturday afternoon and I got a message on my machine saying, ‘We read your script, we really liked it.’ And I called them on Monday morning and basically they said, ‘We think we can do something with this.’ And I still have those agents today. They basically saved my life. I said it at the Writer’s Guild Awards, the thing that’s standing between me being up here and me being in my basement was this agent who read my script.”
Screenwriter Michael Arndt  (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3)
2007 talk at Cody Books (at the 33:31 mark of the FORA.tv video)

This single post/Arndt excerpt—sums up everything I’ve been writing about on this blog for the past five years. Here’s a sweeping overview of Michael Arndt’s career path:

—Graduated from NYU Film School
—Read 1,000 scripts as a script reader of which only “three or four” were turned into good films
—Wrote 10 scripts before breakthrough where he sold one
—Wrote first draft of Little Miss Sunshine in three days, but took a year—full time— to do rewrites
—Was fired off Little Miss Sunshine project—then rehired a few weeks later
—Won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine
—Wrote Toy Story 3, Hunger Games: Chasing Fire, and most recently hired to write Star Wars Episode VII

P.S. To register your film script—which is a good idea— contact the WGA East  or the WGA West.

P.P.S. I finally set up a Facebook page under “Screenwriting from Iowa & Other Unlikely Places” so you can track me down there where I’ll link to posts from the past you may not have read as well as share links from other blogs and websites. (If you decide to “like” make sure it says “Screenwriting from Iowa & Other Unlikely Places.”)

Related Posts:
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Insanely Great Endings
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours 


Scott W. Smith

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“Everybody agreed (Gilligan’s Island) was a terrible show and it’s still running every night everywhere.”
Sherwood Schwartz
Creator, Gilligan’s Island

“I wanted to do a show about democracy, in its basic form. Seven people who have to learn to live together. I couldn’t do that with a job because you can get fired. Where could I put people where they could not get away from each other? That’s what started that show. The only place I could think of was an island, a deserted island, where a group of people were for some reason stranded there.”
Shewood Schwartz

Sherwood Schwartz is not as common a name as Gilligan, the Skipper, or Ginger, but he did create one of the most loved, ridiculed and longest running shows on television—Gilligan’s Island. He also created The Brady Bunch. I just came across an interview Schwartz did with L.Wayne Hicks at TV Party.com that provides some interesting insights into Schwartz’s career.

Schwartz graduated from NYU with the goal of going to med school.  But in the 30s in New York being Jewish was a hindrance. He was advised to change his last name to Black and put down on his application that he was a Unitarian. That concept didn’t sit to well with Schwartz;

“I said, ‘Look, I’m Jewish. I’m not ashamed of that. My name is Schwartz and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m not going to be changing anything to get into medical school.’ So as a result I didn’t get into medical school.”

Instead Schwartz moved to California and earned a master’s degree in biological sciences. So how did he go from that to Gilligan’s Island? After he got his master’s he still couldn’t get into med school. He had a brother who was a head writer for Bob Hope’s radio show and wrote some sample jokes and ended up getting hired for a five-year period until he was drafted.

His time in the military would be a fruitful time creatively as he got to work on the Armed Forces Radio Service shows with, “about everybody you ever heard of, and probably some people you never heard of but who were famous stars at that time. Because the Army had access to all stars and they all did it for nothing, so you’d do shows with anybody and everybody.”

When he got out of the service he wanted to get away from variety shows and move toward situational comedy and wrote for the radio programs Ozzie and Harriet and I Married Joan. But then he wanted his own show and created Gilligan’s Island which was rejected time after time. He said his book, Inside Gilligans’s Island, is about the struggle to get Gilligan’s Island on the air. But remember, like any good protagonist, Sherwood was used to dealing with adversity.

In the TV Party interview Schwartz was asked; What kept you going? Why didn’t you just give up?

“I thought I had a great idea. And it’s still a great idea. It’s people. Here’s a serious show. It’s serious in that Arabs and Jews have to learn to live together for they’re stuck together. North Koreans and South Koreans, they have to learn. If you don’t learn, you’ll all die. So there’s this philosophic basis — this is not an afterthought, this is in the show. When the show first came on the air I got with regularity bachelor’s degree, master’s degree thesis from people in the theatrical area explaining what’s the basis for Gilligan’s Island. Like I didn’t know. It was carefully thought out, these seven people. That took me like a year to figure out who should be on the island. And it was all with a view towards the respect that people have to learn for each other because nobody is the same as anybody else. When would a billionaire sit down and have lunch with Gilligan, except if he had to? The same is true of a movie star and a professor. There’s miles between them, but when they’re stuck in the same place they have to learn to live together. That’s what the show is about, people learning to live together.”
Sherwood Schwartz

So in the case of Gilligan’s Island,  I’m going to put Schwartz down for writingfrom theme. (As opposed to starting with an interesting cast of characters or a shipwreck. His beginning place was a show about democracy, and how seven people “learn to live together.”)

Schwartz won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy as one of the writers on The Red Skelton Hour. Born in 1916, he’s still alive and getting fan mail. The Archive of American Television has a video interview they did with Schwartz in 1997. Schwartz has said that if he was making Gilligan’s Island today he would have a multi-ethnic cast.

P.S. And in case you haven’t heard, there is a Gilligan’s Island script in the works being written by Brad Copeland (Arrested Development, Wild Hogs). You can find many humorous casting suggestions at various websites. One report had Schwartz pulling for Michael Cera (Juno) as Gilligan and Beyonce as Ginger.

Related posts:
How to Create a TV Cult Classic
The Weather Started Getting Rough…

Scott W. Smith

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That’s it, Eric Guggenheim is the final straw. Is it me or are screenwriter’s names getting longer? Today I’m officially change one of the categories on this blog from “Screenwriting Quote of the Day” to simply “Screenwriting Quote #___.” The last writer I quoted was Mark D. Rosenthal and the post heading just looked too long.

So let it be said, so let it be done.

Wonder what took me so long to edit that down. It’s not like I’m paid by the word like my first writing gig at the Sanford Herald. I think it was 10 cents a word. But, heck, I was nineteen and thrilled to being paid anything to write. (Wish I was making 10 cents a word to write this blog.)

Anyway, back to Eric Guggenheim. Guggenheim sold his first script at age 23 just after he graduated from NYU before going on to write the script for Miracle (on the 1980 US Hockey team).  In an interview he did with Debra Eckerling he was asked, “What separates a good sports movie from a bad one?”

Guggenhiem: If all you have is that big game, you’re lost. The film has to be about something else. Take Seabiscuit for example. It’s a story about loss and healing that just happens to be set against the backdrop of horseracing. Jeff Bridges’ character lost his son, Tobey Maguire’s character lost his family. Chris Cooper’s character lost his way of life. Working with the horse and each other helped to ease those losses.

Since I’ll go on record as Seabiscuit being my favorite movie of the last decade (and most watched), I never get tired of talking about that movie. (And am always surprised by how many people haven’t seen the film.) Sports film, horseracing, big Hollywood film—I get why some people would not be attracted to the film, but if you haven’t seen it give it a try. It really is a well-crafted film that is enjoyable to watch on many levels.

Is your favorite sports film about more than the big game? I know Rocky & Hoosiers are both about broken characters looking for redemption.

And by the way, Debra Eckeling writes for Storylink and has the website Write On Online (which is full of Q&A with writers). And you can follow her on Twitter @writeononline.

Scott W. Smith

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