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Posts Tagged ‘Paddy Chayefsky’

Note: I’ve spent the past two weeks visiting my mother in the hospital. The first ten days she was in ICU, but she was moved to a regular room over the weekend.  She’s in the later stages of COPD and, at the moment, kind of in that gray zone of not getting better and not getting worse. My sister and I are meeting with hospice today.

It has been a while since I’ve seen The Hospital (1971), but I’m looking forward to revisiting the satire that  Paddy Chayefsky won an Oscar for writing. After 13 days of dealing with a non-communicative hospital staff and a rotating door of case workers it is amazing how little information (and conflicting information) I’ve been given about my mother’s condition. No need to get into details, but I’ve talked to enough people about their hospital experiences in the past week to know my experience is not unique.

Of course, that didn’t help me hit my deadline of getting my book released in March as I had hoped. But sitting in a hospital ICU room for hours at a time actually did prove some fruitful time to keep working on fine-tuning book details. It was a healthy distraction. And I hope to release the book in April.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to post excerpts from screenwriter Frances Marion’s 1937 book How to Write and Sell Film Stories. Following chapters I’ve already hit on from her book (characterization, theme, and emotions), this week we’ll start with her thoughts on  plot.

Plot is the design, pattern or outline of the story action; it is a statement of the problem or obstacles that confront certain specific characters, their reaction to those problems or obstacles, and the result. It is a series of events or situations affected by the characters involved and affecting them, with the situations building up to a climax. It is a string of relevant and dramatic situations, preferably rising out of character and affecting it, and woven together in such sequence and ascending strength as to make an interesting story. 

A plot must have a definite beginning and ending. Plot structure, says Walter Pater, ‘is that architectural conception of work, which foresees the end in the beginning and never loses sight of it, and in every part is conscious of all the rest, till the last sentence does, but, with undiminished vigor, unfold and justify the first.’”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion 
How to Write and Sell Film Stories 
Page 51

P.S. I love that line “which foresees the end in the beginning.” Perhaps it’s my current state of mind, but if you haven’t seen Kurosawa’s  Ikiru (1952) seek it out as a great example of where the end is perfectly matched to the beginning. It’s the story of a man caught up in the bureaucracy of a post-World War II Japan. As the endless paperwork piles up at his job he finds out that he has cancer and seeks meaning in his life. It’s a beautiful films and one of my favorites.

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Scott W. Smith

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The best advice I ever heard about writing came from Paddy Chayefsky — he, of Network and The Hospital. He also wrote Marty. (That’s three Oscars.)

Chayefsky’s advice to writers was simple: Don’t think of it as art, think of it as work.

Because when a writer is stuck and he or she calls in another writer for help, that second writer doesn’t say, ‘What’s the art problem?’

That second writer says, ‘What’s not working?’ And they get under the hood and fix it together.

That’s most of what you’ll do in your career — work, problem solving. Approach it in that way and then at the end of every day, you’ll at least be able to say, ‘I did my job today.’

If you’re an artist, it’ll come out as art anyway.

…I take my son to his bus stop every morning at 7:30. I’m at my desk working by 8:00. Somebody feeds me at 1:00 and I’m back at my desk by 1:30, working until 6:00.

I don’t surf the web. I don’t gamble online. I don’t go to the local Starbucks for two hours. I don’t try to seek out old girlfriends on Facebook.

I don’t do anything that requires time. I just work.
Oscar-nominated Screenwriter Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
2012 Academy Nicholl Fellowship awards via Medium.com

Related Posts:
“Art is Work”—Milton Glaser
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic
Writing Quote #34 (Achievable Goals)I told myself that I would only write for 15 minutes a day….”
Time Card Screenwriting
Screenwriting Quote #134 (Paddy Chayefsky)
Paddy Chayefsky Interview
Screenwriting Quote #162 (Billy Ray)
Billy Ray’s Directing Advice

Scott W. Smith

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“I think what I’m trying to say [in Network] is, ‘How do you preserve yourself in a world where life really doesn’t mean much anymore?’ That’s what I was trying to say. The trick is, of course, to say it so that it’s a good movie.”
Paddy Chayefsky
Interview with Dinah Shore

 “It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to be handed the same award that was given to Paddy Chayefsky 35 years ago for another movie with ‘network’ in the title.”
Aaron Sorkin
Oscar acceptance speech for writing The Social Network

In 1977 Paddy Chayefsky won an Academy Award for his Network screenplay. Over the weekend I saw a link to a NY Times piece call The Notes Behind ‘Network.’ Here are a few highlights that give a glmpse into the writing process of Chayefsky:

NetworkOutline

ACT II of the Network Stogy
The general framework of Act II is to show how the
network becomes successful and powerful. Obviously, one
crazy anchor man isn't enough to make a network success-
ful. A networkfpower comes from the number of affiliates
it has. Affiliates join a network essentially because
their programs are most in demand by the local areas
serviced by the affiliates. So the next step in the
solvency and success of the network is the success of
programming, built on the,lead--in success of the angry
7:00 news program: - What missing here is the satirical
clarity of how one network achieves successful program-
ming. "he only joke we have going for us is the idea of
ANGER - The American people are angry and want; angry shows --
They donlt want jolly, happy family type shows like 
Witness News; they want angry shows -- So they base their
propgramming on ANGER -- At the moment, the successful
sitcom shows are those that make political comments, mild,
bland,liberal political comments - on racism, Watergate,
political corruption, reactionary neighbors, etc. - UBC
decides to go one step better and make genuinely angry
ainx sit--coms, so that they become sit--tragedies -- The
American people seem to be hungering for happier days
like the Depression, note The Waltons -- frogramming sets
up depression shows with happy, starving families -
No matter how much programming satire we use, we still 
afetbasing the success of their programming on unclear
ines. are assuming UBC programming will now
telling business. You're in the
boredom-killing business. You kill
time for two hundred million Americans
who don't know what to do with themselves.
You give them football games and songs
and dances and soap operas and talk shows
Eor people who forgot how to talk to
each other. You 
tell them
news because they've forgotten how to read -
INTERCUT: Reactions of a glacial hostility settling over
the vast room - There is a noticeable movement of the PRESS
and TV Camera erews slowly edging down the aisles toward the
rostrum -
BACK TO: Eddie at the rostrum. FLASHES from press photographers
occasionally fire, punctuating Eddie's speech -
EDDIE
-Why? Because you're not really in
the entertainment business. You're in
the merchandising business. Your job
is to assemble the largest audience of
consumers. You are, in short, shills
for your sponsors. And television, d1e
fountain of truth,
Q, is, in fact, being run, for the
benefit of a few giant corporations -

Related Posts:

Screenwriting Quote #134 (Paddy Chayefsky)
Paddy Chayefsky Interview
“Television used to suck”—Frank Darabont
Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6) “Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?”—Chayefsky
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 5) The best thing that can happen is for the theme to be nice and clear from the beginning.”— Chayefsky

H/T Scott Keiner for the NY Times link (Via the Two Adverbs screenwriting group on Facebook.)

Scott W. Smith

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“The ‘surplus society’ has a surplus of similar companies, employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar things, with similar prices and similar quality.”
Kjell Nordstrom and Jonas Ridderstrale, Funky Business

We live in a culture that is swimming in “a sea of sameness.” I’m not sure who coined that phrase “a sea of sameness,” but I first heard it from Tom Peters many years ago. The phrase instantly resonated with me because it was so easy to look at the world around me and see that it was true—from fast food restaurants, to automobiles, to Hollywood movies.

The big question is once you notice “the sea of sameness” around you, what do you do about it? If you like the sameness of the life you are living and are surrounded by then there is no dilemma. But if you no longer care to conform to the “sea of sameness” then the only sane thing for you to do is step off the track you’re running on. Rebel. Change.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army

Of course, the courage to change may take years…or something you do today. (Or at least take the first step towards.)

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
Howard Beale
Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky

You can apply that where you will, but since this is a blog on screenwriting that’s where we should look. Are the stories you’re writing the stories you are dying to tell? Here’s how screenwriters Gill Dennis and James Mangold laid it out in the script Walk the Line where record producer Sam Phillips gives some advice to a young Johnny Cash who had just performed a lackluster gospel song for him in hopes of landing a recording contract:

“If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out there in the gutter dying and you had time to sing one song. One song people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth—one song that would sum you up, you telling me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune that we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, about how you’re going to shout it. Or would you sing something different? Something real. Something you felt.  Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. ”
Walk the Line

I hope that’s the kind of script you’re working on now. (Or you at least have a file started.)

Scott W. Smith



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“What jumped out at me (about the 14 page treatment for Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires) wasn’t Facebook. Facebook wasn’t something I knew a lot about when I started. Frankly, it’s not something I know a whole lot about now. I know more about Facebook in 2003-04 than I do in 2010. But what jumped out at me about it was set against the backdrop of this very modern invention was a story that was as old as storytelling itself.  Of friendship, and loyalty, and betrayal, and class, and power—these things that Aeschylus* would have written about, or Shakespeare would have written about, or Paddy Chayefsky would have written about a few decades ago, and it was just lucky for me that none of those guys were available so I got to write about it.”
Aaron Sorkin on what attracted him to write the screenplay for The Social Network
Creative Screenwriting podcast interview by Jeff Goldsmith
December 24, 2010  

* Greek playwright born circa 525 B.C (That’s his pre-Facebook look on the top right.)

Related post: Screenwriting Quote of the Day #42 (Aaron Sorkin)

Movie Cloning (Part 1)

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Now that it’s almost been three years since I started the Screenwriting from Iowa blog and have written over 700 posts, I thought October 10, 2010 (10/10/10) was a fitting day to pick a mix of ten of my favorite, most viewed, and  most helpful posts that you may have missed depending when you started reading this blog or how often you check your RSS feed.

One word of warning is the first year of posts were generally longer than they are today. It was not uncommon that they weighed in between 1,000 & 2,000 words. I’ve added a quote to give you a feel of each post and hope you can take the time to read one or two links. Thanks to everyone for frequenting this blog. Watching the numbers increase really does help keep me plugging away daily. (Hope to get it in book ready shape by the end of the year.)

1) Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
“The way to have a great idea is to have lots of ideas.”
Linus Pauling

2) Can Screenwriting Be Taught?
“I wrote screenplays as a way to get into production. I wrote six or seven before I sold one.”
Lawrence Kasden
screenwriter, Raiders of the Lost Ark

3) Everything I Learned in Film School (tip #1)
“If real estate’s mantra is location, location, location, then for screenwriters it’s conflict, conflict, conflict.”

4) Starting Your Screenplay (tip #6)
“Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?”
Paddy Chayefsky, Three-time Oscar-winning screenwriter

5) Screenwriting & Structure (tip #5)
“Structure is the most important element in the screenplay. It is the force that holds everything together.”
Syd Field

6) Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl in Ohio

“One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart.”
Francis Ford Coppola

7) Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany
“I don’t think that calling something commercial makes it stink.”
Rod Serling

8) The Serious Side of “Gilligan’s Island”
“(Gilligan’s Island) is about, people learning to live together.”

9) Re-Writing Screenwriter John August
If you write a script anywhere and send it to an agent in Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland or wherever…and if that agent sends it to an agent in Hollywood who loves it…you can sell your script.”
Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas

10) How Much Do Screenwriters Make?
“Most screenwriters are unemployed, chronically unemployed.”
Screenwriter Tom Lazarus (Stigmata)

10a—bonus) Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)
Don’t ever agonize about the hordes of other writers who are ostensibly your competition.  No one else is capable of doing what you do.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno)

Scott W. Smith

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The origins of the classic hand game “Rock, Paper, Scissors” are unknown. But what is known is its popularity is undisputed and universal. There are even RPS contests and leagues around the world.  In fact, the World RPS Society has cash prizes and a world champion every year. Online you can find all kinds of websites, t-shirts, and tips on improving your game.

And, yes, there is a documentary on the subject called Rock Paper Scissors; a geek tragedy.

Though there are variations of the game, the basic rules are the same;
—Paper covers rock
—Rock smashes Scissors
—Scissors cut paper

You gotta love the simplicity. For the sake of this post on screenwriting, let’s explore three popular ways that accomplished writers say they have used as starting points for writing screenplays;

—Story
—Characters
—Theme

But we’re not really pitting them against each other, just showing three examples of writers who use one as their starting point.

STORY

“I always start with story rather than characters. When I write I try to write from the point of view of defining a character through action. That way having the narrative shifts define what we think of the characters. That’s why I love film noir crime fiction because double-crosses, twists and turns… you’re constantly readdressing your opinion of the characters and you’re reassessing who you think those people are. I find that a really interesting and very strong form of characterization, but it means putting story first and then just seeing where that leads the characters.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Christopher Nolan
Memento
(And writer/director of the #3 all-time (domestic) box office film The Dark Knight)

CHARACTER

“I DETEST the word plot. I never, never think of plot. I think only and solely of character. Give me the characters; I’ll tell you a story–maybe a thousand stories. The interaction between and among human beings is the only story worth telling.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant
In the Heat of the Night

THEME

“The best thing that can happen is for the theme to be nice and clear from the beginning. Doesn’t always happen. You think you have a theme and you then start telling the story. Pretty soon the characters take over and the story takes over and you realize your theme isn’t being executed by the story, so you start changing the theme.”
Three time Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky
Network, The Hospital, Marty

Three different writers with three different starting points, but each with successful results. The important thing isn’t to argue or worry over your starting point, but pick which works best for you and start (and, yes, there are other starting points). But just as important, finish what you start. And if you really want to have a hand up on most screenplays write one with a solid story, solid characters, and a solid theme.

Scott W. Smith

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“Most people , I believe, initially shun jury duty. The summons always seems to come at the least opportune time, and one might go kicking and screaming.”
David Mamet
Introduction, Twelve Angry Men, Penguin Books

Some writers begin with character, some with a situation, some from theme, but today we’ll look at a writer who once started with setting. A setting most try to avoid—the courtroom.

The first time I stepped foot in a courtroom I was 18 years old and fighting a traffic ticket. It was intimidating, and stimulating to the senses. And it was made all the sweeter in I presented my case, showed some photographs, and won. I was relieved and the police officer even gave me a pat on the back when it was over. That was a good day and left a positive impression of the legal process. My next time in court was a wake-up call.

I was a 22-year-old film school student when I was given a ticket in North Hollywood for what I believed was a mistake of perception on the police officer’s part. I took pictures once again and was confident that the judge would understand the situation and rule in my favor. And he might have, except I didn’t factor in one thing—that the police officer would lie. I was stunned. The judge believed his story, I lost, and the cop called me a punk as we walked out of the building. My hands shook as I drove back to my apartment in Burbank, constantly looking in my rearview mirror.

After that day I started to listen to those who complained of police improprieties. Yes, Virginia, there really are good cops and bad cops. (And  good doctors, bad doctors, good money managers, bad money managers…) Sooner or later you realize we all live outside the garden. Once your eyes are opened, it doesn’t take much to realize the depth of depravity in the world.

But fortunately we live in a country where in general the law and the courts seek the truth. The water may get a little muddy, and it may not always be found, but truth and justice are the goal. And that leads us to Reginald Rose and what led him to write the classic story 12 Angry Men as a successful teleplay (for which Rose won an Emmy), play, and Oscar-nominated screenplay and movie. (In 2005 , the play also won an Tony for “Best Revival of a Play.”)

Rose began writing plays as a teenager and sold his first teleplay when he was 30. Four years later he wrote 12 Angry Men as a one hour teleplay for Studio One and its popularity grew into the play and the 1957 film starring Henry Fonda directed by Sidney Lumet. (A great study for independent filmmakers because the bulk of the movie takes place in one room.) In 1997, another TV version was made starring George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon and Edward James Olmos and would win a collection of Emmy, DGA, SAG, and Golden Globe awards.

And what was the impetus for the story that would go on to win so many awards and be performed so much? A court case where Reginald Rose was part of the jury.

”It was such an impressive, solemn setting in a great big wood-paneled courtroom, with a silver-haired judge. It knocked me out. I was overwhelmed. I was on a jury for a manslaughter case, and we got into this terrific, furious, eight-hour argument in the jury room. I was writing one-hour dramas for ‘Studio One’ then and I thought, wow, what a setting for a drama.”
Reginald Rose
1997 interview with The Daily News.

I don’t know if Rose looked at his jury duty as a pain or a civic duty but I do know that it was that it resulted in a story that was the pinnacle of his career. And since today is Memorial Day let me say that since Rose was a veteran I’d like to think that he, to borrow Mamet’s phrase, saw himself an “essential component of American Democracy.”

Rose enlisted in the Army in 1942 after Pearl Harbor and served in the Philippines and Japan as a First Lieutenant until 1946.

He was nominated for a total of six Emmys winning three and belongs to mentioned with his TV contemporaries Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling.

So the next time you get that dreaded jury duty request, remember Reginald Rose and 12 Angry Men.

Twelve Angry Men (Play published by Penguin Books with David Mamet intro)

12 Angry Men (50th Anniversary DVD starring Henry Fonda)

Twelve Angry Men (L.A. Theatre Works CD)

Twelve Angry Men (DVD of original 1954 Studio One production)

Scott W. Smith

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“I’m not sure I’m quoting Somerset Maugham’s rule absolutely correctly, but I think it is, ‘If it should occur to cut, do so.’ That’s the first basic rule of cutting. If your reading through something and it bothers you, then it’s bad. Cut it…It’s purifying. It’s refining. Making it precise…My own rules are very simple rules. First, cut all the wisdom; then cut all the adjectives. I’ve cut some of my favorite stuff. I have no compassion when it comes to cutting. No pity. No symphathy…Cutting leads to economy, precision, and to a vastly improved script.”*
Paddy Chayefsky (Three-time Oscar-winning screenwriter)
The Craft of the Screenwriter by James Brady
Page 55

*I hope the late Mr. Chayefsky doesn’t mind my edit of his interview with Mr. Brady. I was just trying to make it a little more precise.

Scott W. Smith

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The Craft of the Screenwriter was one of the first books I ever bought on screenwriting. It’s older than some of the readers of this blog. I picked it up when I was in film school in 1982 when screenwriting resources were limited. (The Craft of the Screenwriter is worth having in your library and you can pick it up for a few cents on Amazon—plus $3.99 for shipping, of course.)

It has been amazing to watch the cottage industry related to screenwriting pop up over the years. Books, seminars, DVDs, blogs, etc. make this the golden age of learning. Has that translated into the golden age of screenwriting? You tell me.

“The whole point of theater is, to paraphrase Arthur Miller, to bring one shred of meaning or insight into the otherwise meaningless life of the audience.”

Paddy Chayefsky (Three time Oscar-winning screenwriter; Network, Hospital, Marty)
The Craft of the Screenwriter
Interview with John Brady
page 53

Who am I to disagree with Miller and Chayefsky, but I’m wouldn’t go as far as to say the lives of the audience are meaningless. (And I’m not sure Hitchcock would agree with them.) Though I do agree with the provocative statement that theater (and movies and TV programs) at their best can shed a ray of light in the dark.

Scott W. Smith


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