Posts Tagged ‘Oscar’

The goal is to tell a story for people who don’t have that exact situation in their lives at all. I’m very inspired by people like the Hungarian director István Szábo. He did a film titled Father (1968) and a film titled Lovefilm (1970). I love those films, and I know nothing about growing up in Budapest during World War II. But I can completely relate to them because they’re very concrete and specific about his life.

When you have real, concrete details of human life that don’t feel like tropes or story conventions, and you have characters that don’t feel like film characters but feel like real people, they communicate to an audience in way that can even be commercial. People will relate to it.

I do believe in writing for other people. I’m not trying to do therapy or make a memoir; I’m exploiting personal things to make what is hopefully a unique film. I take from my life to hopefully make a good movie, not a good memoir.
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Mike Mills (20th Century Women)
Creative Screenwriting interview with Christopher McKittrick (@ChrisMcKit)

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“We’re two boys from Liberty City representing the 305.”
Tarrell Alvin McCraney
(305 is the area code in Miami)

“Liberty City, one of the poorest sections of Miami and almost entirely black, is geographically tiny, little more than the housing projects and the blocks surrounding them.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones/ New York Times


What’s more unlikely than an Oscar-winning screenwriter being from the Liberty City section of Miami? That’s easy— how about two Oscar-winning writers being from there. Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney collected the Best Adapted Screenplay Award Sunday for their Moonlight script. Both are from the same housing project in Liberty City.

And to top it off, Moonlight had a surprise upset of La La Land to win Best Picture Oscar.

Allow me take you on a quick tour of greater Miami to explain what’s so special about being from Liberty City.

Less than ten miles east of Liberty City is Miami Beach with its beautiful Art Deco hotels, glamorous night clubs, and high-end cars. Here’s a map of homes in the South Beach and surrounding islands listed on Zillow that are listed for three million or more. (Make note of one listing for $65 million.)

Homes for sale .png

A little over 10 miles to the south of Liberty City you’ll find Coral Gables. It’s home to the Miracle Mile, the University of Miami, and the beautiful and historic Biltmore Hotel.

And lastly on our little tour, just 10 miles to the west of Liberty City you’ll find the Trump National Hotel Miami, a country club where PGA tournaments have been held every year since 1962. Tiger Woods won four times there.

You get the picture. Liberty City is surrounded by some of the finest and upscale places in the United States. I won’t speak for Liberty City (or its next door neighbor, Overtown) in terms of today, but back in 1979 when Barry Jenkins was born Liberty City was  a just under six square miles low income and high crime zone.  (Tough but not as many guns on the street as there are today according to Jenkins.) In 1980 riots broke out there amidst racial tension over a police shooting and acquittal.

This is how Time magazine wrote of the area in 1981 article titled Paradise Lost?:

“Even in Liberty City, the black enclave in North Miami where 18 people died in last year’s riot, the Latin influence is apparent. White store owners who abandoned their businesses are being replaced by Latin landlords. ‘The only things blacks have in Miami are several hundred churches and funeral homes,” says Johnny Jones, a former Dade County school superintendent. ‘After a generation of being Southern slaves, blacks now face a future as Latin slaves. ’”

This is how this New York Times explains the Liberty City journey of both Jenkins and McCraney:

Both men were born to mothers who had their first children when they were teenagers. Both saw their mothers become H.I.V. positive after falling victim to the crack epidemic that overtook their community. Both were taken away from their mothers and bounced around; caregivers, related and not, took them in. They both knew what it was like to have the water turned off for lack of payment, to go to school without deodorant because there was no money to buy it.”

So, yeah, it’s an unlikely place for two Oscar-winners to be raised. And in a nutshell, that’s what the Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places blog is all about. To give a little hope to the creative Outliers in unlikely places around the world.

Related links:
A Liberty City Oscar Watch Party Reacts to Moonlight win/ Miami Herald
Watch Moonlight Director Barry Jenkins Revisit His Hometown/Vanity Fair

Related posts:
The First Black Feature Filmmaker
Postcard #24 (Coral Gables)
Postcard #25 (Miami Beach)
Cocaine Cowboys & the Future of Film (Doc on Miami in the 70s & 80s)
25 Links Related to Black & Filmmaking (2017 Oscar-Edition)

Scott W. Smith

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“My first student film, written/directed shortly after 9/11. A reminder to myself to channel this energy, to create.”
Barry Jenkins (@BandryBarry)
11/10/2016 Tweet

Before Barry Jenkins wrote (with Tarell Alvin McCraney) and directed Moonlightwhich won the Oscar last night for Best Picture and for Best Adapted Screenplay—he was a film school student at Florida State University. My Josephine was his first short film. (A good example of Start Small…But Start Somewhere.)

According to The Guardian, while at Florida State his tastes turned toward art house films listing fimmakers from France, China, and Scotland as influences;  Claire Denis (Vendredi Soir),  Hsiao-Hsien Hou (Three Times), and Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher).

According to Florida State News, a total of seven FSU graduates worked on Moonlight.

Four days after graduating from FSU, Jenkins moved to Los Angeles to pursue a filmmaking career. He spent two years working as a production assistant on various projects, then quit to concentrate on his own movies. His first feature, 2008’s ‘Medicine for Melancholy,’ was shot for $13,000 in San Francisco, where Jenkins was living.”
Rene Rodriguez/Miami Herald


Florida State’s film program has a long legacy of turning out talent. So it’s not a total surprise to have an Oscar-winner emerge from that program. (Not sure if that’s the first or not for FSU.) But where Jenkins was before FSU is a little unusual and we’ll look at that tomorrow.

Scott W. Smith


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Can you have a day job (or a night job) and still find time to write? Yes.

“I was a sound engineer. That was my day job when I started writing. I sort of did my day job every night. I would write from ten to six every day and at six, leave my apartment and head down to one of these rock clubs I worked at and mix for bands, or I would go into my studio… I had a little studio that I started with friends on the Lower East Side, and record bands there and I remember we did a series of Garnier shampoo commercials that like paid my rent for a year.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Graham Moore (The Imitation Game)
Interview with Brad Brevet/ Rope of Silicon

In case you missed it, Moore (whose roots are in Chicago) wrote from “ten to six everyday”—that’s eight hours a day, 40 hours a week if he did that five days a week. Over 160 hour of writing a month, all while working another job that paid his bills.

The Imitation Game was written as a spec script and was chosen as the top script on the 2011 The Black List. For what it’s worth, Moore’s degree from Columbia University is in religious studies.

Related post:
“I can’t keep handling this…rejection”—Graham Moore
“Art is Work”—Milton Glaser
The Breakfast Club for Writers (2.0) Elmore Leonard on writing two hours before work each morning— for ten years!—before his writing career really took off.
Iowa Kutcher on Jobs/Work —”Opportunities look a lot like work.”
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (Tip #2)
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70) Hint—it’s not screenwriting contests, screenwriting workshops, or screenwriting blogs and podcasts.

Scott W. Smith

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Screenwriter Damien Chazelle didn’t really write Whiplash straight out of Harvard University—he’d actually sold a few spec scripts after he graduated with a degree Visual & Environmental Sciences. He’d even had a couple of features produced from his scripts. But it wasn’t until after he tapped into his own experience as competitive jazz ensemble drummer in high school that he became an Oscar-nominated screenwriter.

“[Whiplash] was the most personal thing I’d ever written—the most embarrassing in that sense as well. It sounds very cliche to say this but it was that kind of pouring out on the page sort of thing. And wrote it very quickly and kinda put it in a drawer, and was too embarrassed to show it to anyone for a while because I didn’t like what it said about myself. And then tinkered with it a little bit and finally got up the courage to show it to a few people and then it sort of became, ‘okay, let’s try to actually make this.’ But it started out more as just a, ‘This [other script’s] not working I need to just do something completely different, I’m going to write what happened to me as a drummer.”
Screenwriter Damien Chazelle on his screenplay Whiplash
DP/30 Interview

P.S. The day after the New England Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl it seems fitting to have a Boston/Cambridge related post. If you go back to 2008 post Screenwriting from Massachusetts you’ll find that Chazelle joins of list of at least 20 writers who attended Harvard and had their work end up as movies. 

Other Massachusetts related posts:

‘The Verdict’ Revisited
Tony C
Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (‘Prisoners’)
Will Simmons’ Road to Hollywood
Mad Men (and Women) Writers
Screenwriter Thomas McCarthy
Screenwriter Scott Rosenberg
Writing ‘Good Will Hunting’
(Yawn)…Another Pulitzer Prize
Screenwriting Quote #3 (Charlie Kaufman)

Scott W. Smith

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I’m a little late to the party but I just saw the Oscar-winning “Best Documentary” Twenty Feet From Stardom (2013) that’s currently on Netflix. Great stuff from writer/director Morgan Neville and a wide variety of people he brought together to create something special.

(It also fits nicely into my thread of musical related posts.)

Scott W. Smith

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“How many actors are so unlikable and loveable in the same moment? That’s Bill [Murray].”
Writer/director Theodore Melfi (St. Vincent)

“When you have a character as disagreeable as Vincent (Bill Murray), if you can keep him disagreeable, even when he becomes agreeable, you have done the job. Because you and I ultimately both know how the movie’s gonna end. Period. We might not know exactly how they’re gonna get there, we might be surprised along the way, but ultimately, you don’t go sit down and watch a movie called The King’s Speech and think that the King is gonna stutter in his last speech. We all know watching a movie called St. Vincent, that Vincent is gonna end up being the kid’s saint. This is not a thriller. To me all movies are about the journey to get there…This movie to me, basically, in one word, is ‘value.’ How we have a value, and we think we have a value as human beings. We all have a value and that value is equal. Over time, the prostitute has a value, the single mom has a value, the old drunk has value, the Catholic priest has value, the kid has value.”
Theodore Melfi
WGA, West interview by Dylan Callaghan

P.S. Saw St. Vincent this afternoon and enjoyed it throughly. One of my favorite films of the year. Strong writing and great casting, with Murray at the center as a man at the end of his rope—and in real life heading for an Oscar nomination.

Related posts:
Postcard #74 (Bill Murray)
‘Lost in Translation’ Golf Scene
End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14)

Scott W. Smith

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“It was Chandor’s script, filled with tart exchanges and involving situations that explore unexpected areas of corporate psychology and human behavior, that attracted the high-powered cast…”
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times film critic
Regarding Margin Call which starred Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, and Simon Baker

Like a lot of people (including the Coen Brothers) I’m transiting from editing on Final Cut Pro to Adobe Premiere Pro. I weighed my options for over a year before jumping into Premiere last week. The main thing that forced the issue was having a reality show pilot I’m editing that has over 500 gig of footage from four different types of cameras. Without getting too technical for the non-video editors out there, not having to transcode 500 gig of footage was worth the switch to Premiere alone. So far, the transition has been a smooth one.

And one of the things that’s made it a smooth transition is the online training tutorials I use at lynda.com. This morning I was looking over some of lynda.com’s hundreds of course titles and noticed they had a screenwriting panel discussion from the 27th Annual Santa Barbera International Film Festival and I found this sound bite from a screenwriter who had a 15 year journey before his screenwriting dream become a produced reality :

“I had been a not very successful commercial and documentary director that was trying to write and direct my own material. So I had written one or two projects that I had worked on for seven or eight years. One finally sort of came together, and then blew up prior to principal photography. And we had a deposit, a full crew, I mean we were ready to go. I had taken eight or nine months off of working on anything else and had a young baby at the time and had put myself in a terrible financial position. So I walked away for almost three years. And this story sort of started to grow in my head, and then I finally sat down and wrote it very quickly. Gave it to two people and very superstitiously felt like if something was meant to come from it it would. And not to be melodramatic about it but it was sort of my last shot at [screenwriting]. I think I knew it was the best thing I’d ever written up until that point so I felt like if something would come from it it would. And it did thankfully.”
J.C. Chandor speaking about his first produced feature film Margin Call (2011) for which he received an Oscar nomination

Chandor made his first short film at Wooster College in Ohio and graduated from there in 1996. It takes a little time sometimes. (Actually, more often than not.)

Related Posts:
lynda.com for President
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)
First Screenplay, Oscar—Precious (“I devoted myself to writing for years without representation or a promise of anything.”— Geoffrey Fletcher)

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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“I knew that I wanted to make movies but I kinda didn’t know what you do.”
Chris Terrio (Talking about after graduating from college)

Screenwriter Chris Terrio is now Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio. His script for Argo was not only a winner for him but the movie also took home the Oscar for best film.

His career  path took a few years—heck, even his Argo script which everyone loved took five years to get made. But the path Terrio took is also a familiar one; born in New York City, private Catholic schools, undergraduate work at Harvard, a year graduate study in England, MFA at USC,  Sundance, Oscar-winner. But those impressive credentials gloss over the lean years and the dedication to writing of the now relatively wealthy and well-known 36-year-old screenwriter.

“When you’re not in the [WGA] you’re just grateful for anything that’ll you give you a month of rent or a couple months of rent. My first couple of jobs were New York independent things. And for really smart interesting producers trying to do smart interesting things. But of course there wasn’t a lot of money for an untested writer. So if somebody had read some things you’d written, or a play you’d written, or a script you’d written on spec then sometimes you’d get paid 5,000 bucks, if you’re lucky, on a good day maybe 10,000 bucks. Or just here’s lunch if you’ll let me be the guy to take your screenplay around, and you’re grateful for that. One of the things I’m not sure you’re always prepared for is the  loneliness of it. You really have to get to a mental place where every single day you can be prepared to be alone for long periods of time.
Chris Terrio
December 2012 interview with David Poland on The DP/30 Channel

P.S. For what it’s worth, the Harvard and USC education costs about $400,000. in today’s dollars. The Catholic schools Terrio attended in Staten Island are probably worth another $50,000—100,000. It’s often hard to pay back any college loan, much less when you’re making $5,000 or $10,000 on an occasional script sale. (In fact, on the above interview Terrio says he got himself into “crippling, crippling debt which I literally paid off two months ago.”) Nobody’s sugar-coating things here. A friend of my is producing a documentary called Broken, Busted, & Disgusted about the true cost of a college education. On their website they say 2/3 of college graduates have loan debts, averaging $25,000. It’s an important topic that I’ll write more about more in detail later. You can also learn more about the film on their Facebook page.

Related post:

How Much Do Screenwriters Make? (Odds are before the six or seven-figure check arrives, the five-figure check will come.)
How to Be a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)
How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #42)
Beatles, Cody, King, and 10,000 Hours

Scott W. Smith

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