Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Paul Schrader’

Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
Silent Night
Lyrics by Joseph Mohr
(Written in Salzburg, Austria and performed around the world for 200 years)

RC-Notes_3395

R.C. Sproul’s notes used for a videotaping

R.C. Sproul was the Elvis of theologians.

He corresponded via letters with novelist Pat Conroy and scientist Carl Sagan. He once led a Bible study with some of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the Bradshaw-era, did a pretty decent impersonation of Peter Falk as Columbo, could recite Edger Allen Poe and Shakespeare from memory, and played jazz on the piano. He’s quoted in the vampire movie The Addiction, and once played golf with Alice Cooper. Just your average theologian.

Wait. Backup. Why are we talking about a theologian on a screenwriting/filmmaking blog?

R.C. Sproul died earlier this month and it’s brought a flood of memories to my mind because tucked between my being a 16mm cameraman at American’s Downhill in Aspen in 1987, and winning my first Emmy in 2008, I spent the decade of the ’90s producing videos with him. (You can read his official obituaries at The Washington Post or  USA TODAY.)

I saw R.C. speak at a conference before 7,000 people, and at a smaller predominately African-American church in Charleston, and occasionally recorded his talks one on one in his home. R.C.’s mind was a deep well of knowledge and it was no effort for him to switch gears between the teaching of a Jewish carpenter named Jesus with Plato, Socrates, Heraclitus, John Calvin, Martin Luther and Thelonious Monk. R.C. believed all truth was God’s truth.

I met R.C. when I was 27 years old and just a few years removed from being an earring wearing, motorcycle riding, film school student in Los Angeles. I had Tony Lama eel skin boots, skinny Italian leather ties, and a jacket or two that would blend in on the set of Miami Vice. 

Imagine that guy walking into a Brooks Brothers blue blazer culture complete with Wingback chairs, and Hunt Club prints on the walls. I may have been a fish out of water, but it turned out to be a great opportunity on many levels.

This post is not so much a tribute to R.C. as it is about the twists and turns in the road that happen in your life. And in a round about way it’s my Christmas post this year. It’s way too long for most of you, but something I had to process. Merry Christmas.

FOLLOW YOUR OPPORTUNITIES

TV host Mike Rowe says that people shouldn’t follow their dreams, but their opportunities.  When writer/director Sean Baker (The Florida Project) graduated from NYU film school he had a dream to make feature films, but he also had a need to earn a living. So what he did was follow his opportunity:

“I was lucky enough to land a job right out of school with a small publishing company that put me in charge of their AV work. So basically I was producing a lot of corporate type videos. I was interviewing authors. Traveling all over the states just to interview them to put together a little EPK [Electronic Press Kit]. But that’s good work. It pays the bills. And I would suggest anybody who’s striving to become a filmmaker to at least stay within the AV world. Because you’re practicing on a daily basis. And even though you think this isn’t me being creative, it is. It really is because you’re still framing shots, you’re still editing, you’re understanding the technical side of things.”
Sean Baker
No Film School podcast interview

For me, working for a non-profit educational group that started out as The Ligonier Valley Study Center helped me turn the corner from film to video production, and eventually led me into the digital world. There I was able to produce, direct, shoot, and edit video projects.  As an audio producer/editor I helped launch and name the international radio program Renewing Your Mind with R.C. Sproul in 1994. I did some photography, and helped build and design sets.

set3398.jpg

coffeehouse-set-e1514210024470.jpeg

Set for Ligonier youth video

But working for R.C. also did more than getting me hands on experience with non-linear editing with the AVID way back in mid-’90s, but it allowed me to work and learn from some of the most creative and talented people in Orlando. The list is too long to name everyone, but it includes cameraman Mike Murray of Adrenaline Films (who went on to become a director of photography on Survivor), cameraman Mike “Mac” McAleenan (now with Nat Geo credits), Bryan Smoker (now an editor at Disney World), audio engineer John Blanche (who worked on Eagles records at Criteria Records in Miami), editor Oliver Peters, film producer Rick Eldridge, and engineer Bob Zelin known for his posts at Creative Cow. 

I learned about graphics from Terry Groner, and motion graphics from Terry Briegel. And I doubt I’d won a second Emmy for location lighting if I hadn’t picked up a few tricks from DP Ben Mesker.  And I learned from Jack Rowley who first started videotaping R.C. back in the ’70s.

Just last week I saw a 1988 promotional video for “Hollywood East” and it made me smile. I left LA in December of 1987 in hopes of getting on the ground floor of the Central Florida production world as Disney and Universal were both building studios.

I guess in some ways I did, but it wasn’t the Florida version of Hollywood I was seeking.  The closest I got to that was editing a Ligonier project at Century III at Universal Studios while director David Nutter was editing Superboy in the next edit bay.

Nutter would eventually go on to win a Primetime Emmy for directing an episode of Game of Thrones, and Hollywood East eventually became a reality—in Atlanta.  But my point is Orlando in the ’90s was happening in terms of production.

Directing_3405.jpg

I put on a tie and a blue blazer and they let me direct

Directing multicamera shoots for Ligonier at the CBS and FOX TV studios, and just working on productions day in and day out was a great place to learn and grow.  And it positioned me well for the multimedia work I’ve been doing since 2002. And though I only saw R.C. in passing over the last 15 years, his teaching/storytelling/communication style is one that I embrace and use (without the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) when I speak to students about production.

While at the time I would have rather been an assistant cameraman on the feature films that were shot in Orlando in the late 80s and early 90s —Ernest Saves Christmas (88), Parenthood (89), Passenger 57 (92)— I think I was better served long term working with R.C. producing/directing/shooting/editing an eclectic range of projects. It was also during that time when I did some of the Holocaust interviews for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project, which is easily in my top ten all-time production experiences.

Here’s the opening I produced and edited with Bryan Smoker that I think holds up pretty well even though it was done in standard def 20 years ago .

THE LIGONIER VALLEY— SILICON VALLEY CONNECTION

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. ”
Steve Jobs
2005 Stanford graduation speech

“The older the question, the older the answer.”
Naval Ravikant (Co-founder of Angel-list)

LigonierValley_3408

Grounds of the original Ligonier Valley Study Center

There was a hunger in the ’60s for some deeper meaning to life. One clear—yet short lived— example was when the Beatles went to India to study with the Maharishi in ’68. It was a time of experimentation which included psychedelic drugs and asking spiritual questions. Tech guru Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine even talks about Silicon Valley’s roots being grounded in hippy culture where there was freedom to create and innovate. The hippies may not have cared about material possessions, but they still needed to eat. So there was an entrepreneurial/bohemian/gypsy spirit where people made bracelets and such to sell at concerts and fairs.

Of course, a strange byproduct is this group of people who didn’t people care about material items laid the ground work that’s changed the world with computers and created some of the wealthiest people in the history of civilization. (Lawrence Kasden’s The Big Chill touched on the theme of how a group of friends went from not caring about material items to become full-bore materialists.)

Established places like Koinonia Farm (founded in 1942 ) in rural Georgia. were positioned well for Jesus movement when it formed in the ’60s. In 1969 Koinonia built their first house for the less fortunate, and the international group Habitat for Humanity (and President Jimmy Cater’s life work after leaving the White House) flowed from those efforts.

The early roots of Ligonier were also earthy, communal, and early church-like. Heck, I think even a few hippies were there. (Judging some of R.C. ‘s early photos I’d put him down as a beatnik.) Several documentaries and TV programs about the ’60s cover the aspect of how baby boomers were heading into the hills around the world in search of some form of spiritual enlightenment. One of those places was in Stahlstown, Pennsylvania—a rural area in the Ligonier Valley about an hour outside of Pittsburgh.

That’s where The Ligonier Valley Study Center was founded in 1971 and modeled a little after what theologian Francis Schaeffer started in Switzerland called L’Abri. (R.C. met with Schaffer before starting Ligonier.) A place where small groups of people came to stayed for days or weeks and learned more about the Bible, theology, and philosophy and how to live the Christian life.

One redemptive example from Ligonier’s early years was Chuck Colson who came to the study center after his release from prison for his role in Watergate. He was mentored one on one with R.C. before launching Prison Fellowship They work to reform inmates while in prison and prepare them to make the transition once released. Another example is Joni Eareckson Tada who listened to R.C.’s tapes after a diving incident left her paralyzed as a teenager. Despite once thinking she wasted her life she started Joni & Friends in 1979.  Her minsitry helps handicapped people around the world, including refurbishing 10,000 wheelchairs a year.

R.C. not only connected a lot of dots for me, he showed me a lot of dots I didn’t even know existed. Some of those dots I still don’t understand. And while I embrace a lot of mystery of faith, one key principle that R.C. taught that I clearly understood was that men and women are reveled in the Bible warts and all. And the beauty is—God still used them.

While technically theology proper is the study of God. R.C.’s talks covered not only the Bible and theology, but philosophy, the arts, sex, economics, ethics, Greek mythology—in fact, I’m not sure what realm he didn’t cover.

Of course, any theologian popping up on a screenwriting blog may seem unusual, but it’s not unheard of. If you can’t talk about the spiritual realm at Christmas time, when can you talk about it? One of the most respected screenwriter bloggers/teachers, Scott Myers of Go Into the Story, has an Masters of Divinity degree from Yale. And perhaps my first grownup theological lesson ever came from Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader  in an interview published in  The Craft of the Screenwriter.  (I first read that book in the early 80s when I was still in film school.)

In an interview with John Brady, Schrader lays out the doctrine of total depravity and how he used that in the screenplay for Hardcore (1979). A story about a man from Grand Rapids, Michigan searching for his daughter who’s become a prostitute in California. (Sort of a modern-day reworking of John Ford’s The Searchers.)

schrader_3372.jpg

Schrader’s book Transcendental Style in Film looks at the films of Yasajiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer goes deeper on the topic. That book was published in 1988, when R.C. had relocated to Orlando. But it’s the kind of book that he would have discussed back in the early days when he talked about the foreign films.

There’s an episode of  Northern Exposure  titled A Wing and a Prayer where they arm wrestled over the doctrine of transubstantiation. I’ve always wondered where that episode came from. And you can’t talk about spirituality and films without talking about one of America’s greatest film directors who once wanted to be a priest:

“I’m not a theologian who could argue the Trinity. I’m certainly not interested in the politics of the institution. But the idea of the Resurrection, the idea of the Incarnation, the powerful message of compassion and love — that’s the key. The sacraments, if you are allowed to take them, to experience them, help you stay close to God.”
Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese (The Mission, Silence)

From the many interviews I read and heard over the years, I wouldn’t say that Scorsese has a lot of company in Hollywood that share his views.  But if you look outside the Hollywood system you’ll find filmmakers over the years with more of a spiritual emphasis; Krzysztof Kieslowski (Decalogue)—who Roger Ebert called among the greatest filmmakers, Oscar-winning director Pawel Pawlikowski , and Andrei Tarkovsky.

If you’re unfamiliar with films with a spiritual bent check out these; Tender Mercies, Babett’s Feast, Koyaanisqatsi, Ida,  Departures, Grand Canyon, On the Waterfront, and Kurosawa’s Ikiru.

R.C.’s memorial service was this past Wednesday and the song they started the service with was the song Non Nobis Domine that ends the movie Henry V.  A song translated from the book of Psalms meaning, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to thy name give the glory.” 

SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM

“Man is a useless passion. It is meaningless that we live and it is meaningless that we die.”
Jean-Paul Sartre

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
Jesus of Nazareth

Apparently we took the long road to Bethlehem on this post. But it’s Christmas Eve and churches will be filled with people singing songs about a baby in a manger; O Holy Night, Joy to the World, Hark! The Herald Angles Sing, Handel’s Messiah. 

Outside the churches people will sing Jingle Bells, Baby It’s Cold Outside, Santa Baby, and White Christmas. Christmas time in the United States is the meeting of the sacred and the secular.

The orginal Christmas in Bethlehem was a collision of the sacred and the secular on a cosmic level.  It turned the world upside down.

So much so that even the king of rock ‘n roll once became a theologian when he sang;

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ the Savior is born

 

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Will one of the results from The Florida Project be the youngest Oscar nominee ever, and the first Instagram star to receive an Oscar-nomination? Time will tell.

“Casting is one of the most important things—if not the most important thing for a film like [The Florida Project] that’s character driven. And I said that we are not going to make this film, and production better be prepared to not move forward unless we find our present-day Spanky McFarland. I really was looking for today’s Spanky. It took a while to find Brooklyn. Brooklynn Prince is her name and she was a local hire. I wanted kids to be from the Orlando/Kissimmee area, it was important for me. For their accents and etc. I just really felt that we should be casting the kids locally. So they could go home at night and feel comfortable in their environment. 

And she was in the database of a local casting company. She had done some commercials.  She had done one small indie. And you know what, I honestly throw her in the same camp as Mickey Rooney, Jodie Foster, I really do feel she’s a born thespian.

[We looked at] a couple hundred perhaps. We put out in a couple counties that we were looking for children and they didn’t have to have prior experience. We were looking for personas. And I was also doing my street casting at the same time. We were closer to production. I was living down there [in Central Florida] so I was going through Walmart, I was going through Target and that’s were I found Valeria [Cotto] . I saw this little girl with striking red hair and I went up to her mother and said we’re hold auditions please have her come in. She came in, she really impressed us and she turned out to be five years old which cut two hours off our day, but she was worth it. We made production adjust to that. 

And there’s a whole new world, a whole new way of casting these days.  I’ve used social media in the past with Tangerine. Using Vine and You Tube to find castSo Bria [Vinaite] we found her on Instagram. My financiers allowed me to take this risk and roll the dice. She was green, yet enthusiastic and very motivated. She came down a month early and also worked with my acting coach Samantha Quan [@SamanthaQuan] and she got to that place where I believe she was holding her own with Willem [Defoe] by the second weekend. I’m just so proud of her. Mela Murder who plays Ashley in the film came from a short film called Gang that I saw on Vimeo that I thought she was amazing in. She has quite a range. And then there’s the conventional ways of casting and that’s how Willem came into this picture. That’s how Calab Landry Jones  came to us through the agencies.”
Director/Writer/Editor Sean Baker on casting The Florida Project
The Director’s Cut podcast interview with Paul Schrader produced by the DGA

Related posts:
The Florida Project
The Cinematic and Journalistic Roots of The Florida Project

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“I write dialogue fairly easily. Plot is a big pain in the ass.”
David Mamet

If you like discussing screenplay structure, and praising or blasting three act structure, then this post is for you. I’ll start out with an exchange between writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and writer/director Sean Baker (The Florida Project) taken from The Director’s Cut podcast that the DGA produced.

Paul Schrader: This film The Florida Project, which is really amazing, is part of a larger trend that I first noticed four or five years ago. And I called it at that time the exhaustion of narrative, because we see so much plot—so much narrative—in our lives, hour upon hour upon hour, that we’re growing tired of it, so we’re much more open now to things that amble and are anecdotal because they feel more real. We’re so tired of seeing those rusty gears of the three act structure crank, and you start to say; Okay, rising action, falling action, boom, boom, boom. Robert McKee has done none of us favor. So you saw it with Dunkirk, which is a big historical action piece but it’s done anecdotally. And you saw it with Detroit which meanders. And you see it here [with The Florida Project]. And I think that audiences find this more interesting than that heavy plotted stuff that we used to have 25 years ago. I don’t know if you agree with that.

Sean Baker: Well, read Twitter. I don’t know if that’s exactly true. First I just want to say Paul, thank you so much for doing this. You’ve been an inspiration and an influence on my entire career so thank you. Regarding [structure] my co-screenwriter Chris Bergosh actually comes from—our sensibilities are slightly different. He’s really is actually very structured in his writing, he likes the three act structure. I come from the other side of the spectrum where I can have a 10-minute Tarkovsky tracking shot that I’m intrigued by. We sort of meet somewhere in the middle. With this film in particular we kept saying—we’ve written three films together Starlet, Tangerine and [The Florida Project]—and I kept saying on this one, if there is a plot I want it to be disguised, I want it to be buried. I want the lines of our three act structure to be blurred, so it would be hard to figure out where the second and third act begin. And make this film more about character. We wanted the audience to spend a summer with this children. And if you think about your summers of your youth, it wasn’t exactly plot driven. There wasn’t a three act structure to your summer. So that’s how we approached it. 

Now we did take some precautions by writing scenes that didn’t make it into the final film, but we did it just out of safety sake. We actually had scenes that had more exposition, that actually did focus on just the adults, especially the ending it was much more procedural in the script. Hoping that it could come out, but shooting it for safety sake. And end the end we did remove a lot of that stuff and put back in what you might call extraneous scenes back in. For example, the kids dancing on the bed,  that’s not exactly something that pushes the plot forward or the story forward. …Almost like vignettes to a degree. Some people do have an issue with that, but for me ultimately I thinks it’s about connecting with these characters and having spent real time with them and not having every scene about exposition. 

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let me just defend traditional three act structure (and by association McKee since Schrader brought him into the discussion). Three act structure is simply a time proven tradition that’s been around for arguably decades of film, and hundreds (or even thousands of years) of theater. And it will be around forever. Even if it means some work being in four or five acts. (McKee, Syd Field, and others just pointed out what was common in many great films. It’s like blaming the hero’s journey on Joseph Campbell.)

No one is calling Pixar films or Spotlight and dozens of other recent solid traditionally structured films rusty.  Good story telling is good storytelling. Period. Paul Schrader has a brilliant mind and has had a long love affair with movies. But with that said he, like the critics who love The Florida Project, want to see something new. Baker and Bergosh delivered.  You only get that experience in cinema a few times a year. The Florida Project is the poster child for new and different this year.

The Florida Project deserves the praise it’s getting. But it was a risk to make because it is a character driven film that is mini-plot at best. It does build to a climax. But there is no major dramatic question in this movie. No stated goal. Just survival tactics. But there is plenty of what I’ve said are three of the most important things for a script/movie to have; conflict, and emotion. And they toss in several interesting characters who are a part of the end of the rope club.

They ride that train from the opening to the closing scene. And they can downplay the narrative because they made the film for “well under $2 million.” They weren’t going after a Titanic box office. They were going after a small audience. To date the film has made $3 million so they’re doing quite well.

It will do well at the award season and open new opportunities for Baker and Bergosh. But the death of three act structure is greatly exaggerated.  We need structure in our films, because so much of life is not structure. To get the broadest audience you have to wrap in a why that is accepted by the widest group of people. The three act structure (or any structure that works) is not going anywhere.

I think McKee once said something like 80% of all films fall under traditional structure, because it helps give the film a chance to making back its money. The Florida Project falls into that other 20% of films that are made. Heck, it’s hard for any film to find an audience—but even harder for those other 20%. The Florida Project is getting a welcomed standing ovation. (But with that said, I understand why someone would wonder five, ten, 20 minutes into the film, “What is this film about?” They may leave the theater before the movie is over.) But not all films need to be neatly explainable. When The Florida Project was over I felt like I got punched in the face. And it was a great feeling. And it’s way that movie is getting the hype it’s getting and will be remember for decades.

There’s not too many movies you can say that about.

One of my all time favorite films is Tender Mercies which could be considered mini-plot. But 30 years later that film still haunts me. Tender Mercies was directed by Australian Bruce Beresford and I’ve called it an American foreign film. My guess is that though Baker and Bergosh are Americans that one or both of them have had a steady diet of foreign films in their lifetime.

Let me close this with a graph from McKee’s book Story that touches on archplot, miniplot, and antiplot. There is no one way to make a great movie. And in the book he goes even deeper covering non-plot.

Mckee.jpg

P.S. Movies that are well structured but lack meaningful conflict and emotion tend to be boring and lifeless. No one is going to call The Florida Project boring and lifeless.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

“I never saw myself as a sitcom person, but I was waiting tables and I was like I have to figure out something and I wrote this script that was super dark, but when I put it into Charlie’s [Charlie Day] hands or Glenn’s [Glenn Howerton] they made it funny and I realized this could actually be a sitcom. But the truth is I never had any aspirations to get into comedy writing at all.”
Writer/actor Rob McElhenny on the initial concept for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

The following exchange from Scriptnotes podcast #299 lasts less than a minute, but it belongs in the Scriptnotes hall-of-fame. And it’s the drum I’ve been beating in the 9+ years of writing this blog. And a classic example of “do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Screenwriter Dana Fox: What was your trajectory to get you where you are right now?

Rob McElhenny : Well, mostly desperation. I was working in every bar and restaurant in New York City and I was just acting—or I was auditioning, and not getting any jobs, and complaining about every script that I read. So I was encouraged by my agent to stop bitching and write something for myself. I got the Syd Field screenwriting books, and William Goldman [Adventures in the Screen Trade] and just tried to understand [the basic principles of writing]. The first thing I wrote was not a comedy at all, it was really super dark. Really dark because that was a time in my life when I was very dark. 

That script got optioned and led to Rob working with Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) for six months. And while had to be an incredible opportunity itself, took Rob further into the deep forest as the project fell apart and ultimately didn’t get made. Rob stopped writing and decided it was time to leave New York.

Rob McElhenny (con’t): I moved out to Los Angeles and I decided to write again. I said I want to write something very simple so I don’t have to give it to somebody else. I want to go shoot it myself. So I wrote a little short film that was very dark but I brought it to my friends Glenn and Charlie and they thought it was funny so I just hitched my wagon to those two and held on for dear life. 

I didn’t really know anything about filmmaking, but I didn’t know anything about writing I just got all the books and watched as many movies as I possibly could. And so I just went to Best Buy—I didn’t have any money, but I got one of their credit cards with the high interest rates and I bought a prosumer camera and I got Final Cut [editing software] and learned how to cut and we shot it and I cut it together—and it was terrible. Like terrible, terrible. But I realized it was terrible and I re-wrote it and I shot it again. That was also terrible. And then we shot maybe three or four iterations and then I realized, wait, maybe this isn’t so bad. 

It not only wasn’t so bad, but it was so good that it paved the way to co-creating It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (with Glenn Howerton) which is now in its 12th season, and if it continues through its contract will end up being the longest running live action narrative TV program in the history of television. (Surpassing The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriest which ran for 14 seasons.)

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

I’m certainly not an expert on movies that feature architecture but the topic does interest me and I did find an interesting article called Ten films that every architect must watch. Half of the films on the list I have not only not seen but have never heard of before. Films from Poland, UK, Italy, Japan, France, Germany. I see a new world opening up.

1. The Fountainhead
2. Metropolis
3. Blade Runner
4. Mon Oncle
5. Playtime
6. My Architect
7. Tango
8. Castle in the Sky
9. Belly of an Architect
10. Star Wars series

Architects and architecture are often fitting metaphors for screenwriters and filmmakers because it exposes the world we build or want to build.

As far back as the Bible there is this question asked: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”

Harrison Ford longed to build his uptopia in The Mosquito Coast (screenplay by Paul Schrader from Paul Theroux’s book). Adam Sandler is an architect in the movie Click and faces a life that he has built. Henry Ford’s character in 12 Angry Men was an architect. Over 100 years ago Ibsen wrote the tragic play The Master Builder. And most recently Inception written and directed by Christopher Nolan that features some mindbending architecture and stars Leonardo DiCaprio as features Ellen Page as architect/grad student who creates subconscious dreamscapes. (For what it’s worth, I have read that females architects are only in the 10-13% range of all architects in North America.)

I’m sure there are many other noteworthy films that feature architects and architecture and fell free to comment on some of your favorites.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

“The fact is, when I wrote Juno—and I think this is part of its charm and appeal—I didn’t know how to write a movie.”
Diablo Cody

Today marks the two and a half-year anniversary of starting this blog— Screenwriting from Iowa. A blog that got its start after seeing the movie Juno and reading the articles about screenwriter and University of Iowa grad Diablo Cody who jump started her career by blogging. Two and a half years ago blogging was still pretty much a mystery to the masses. Just put your stuff out there and see what happens was Cody’s encouragement to anyone who would listen.

She walked away with an Oscar in 2008 and later that year I won a Regional Emmy in Advanced Media for Screenwriting from Iowa. (Juno Has Another Baby.) It was all the sweeter that I received the Emmy in Minneapolis where Cody happened to write Juno.

My goal with this blog from the start has been to encourage and inspire writers and filmmakers around the country to hone their craft as they pursue writing for Hollywood, ultra low-budget filmmaking, or something in between. Along the way I’ve also shown writers in Los Angeles who write stories that take place far from the shadow of the Hollywood sign. (Usually, because they came from outside L.A. originally, or they are adapting a novelist who set a story in their neck of the woods.)

Cody was not the first writer outside L.A. to breakthrough, nor will she be the last. But I believe she is the poster child for screenwriters originally from outside L.A. who desire to write something so original that it leap frog’s the zillions of other more experienced screenwriters. Really, how many screenwriters does the public know by name?

That doesn’t mean that she is loved and adored by everyone. I’m sure she even understands some of the Cody backlash, because how many people walk away with an Oscar on a first script that they were just flirting around writing?

“I think I went into (writing Juno) as an experiment; I didn’t really have a whole lot invested in it. It was more something I just wanted to try. I had no idea throughout the whole process that this would ever wind up being a produced screenplay or that this would ever end up being cast with these amazing actors. There was absolutely no pressure on me because I was just sitting in Minnesota writing for my own edification. So I think that was freeing in a lot of ways.”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

That has to make all of those screenwriting gurus cringe. And tick off a few writers who have been at it five, 10, 20 years. And if that doesn’t, this will:

“I guess ignorance is bliss is the best way of putting it. [laughs] The only thing I did was I went to Barnes & Noble and bought the shooting scripts for a couple of movies that I liked so I could see how they looked on the page and that gave me a little structural guidance. but that was all I did. ”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

But what about all those screenwriting classes and workshops you’re supposed to take and all those books on screenwriting you’re supposed to read, on top of the years of writing screenplays? Nah, remember Cody was just flirting with screenwriting. Juno was her first attempt and she cranked it out in six weeks at a Starbucks inside a Target store in the Minneapolis suburb of Crystal. Was it a flawless, script? Perfectly tuned like the screenwriting gurus tell you it has to be? Not according to Cody.

“When we sent that screenplay out it was riddled with typos and formatting errors because I had no idea what I was doing. [laughs] My manager was so stunned that I had turned out something vaguely coherent that he just said, ‘Let’s just throw it out there and see if anybody likes it.’ We didn’t really obsess; I think it was just a case of expectations being so low that there was not a lot of polishing and spit-shinning going on.”
Diablo Cody
Filmmaker magazine Fall 2007

It would be easy to just say Cody got lucky. That would be a mistake. How did she get a manager in the first place? Because her manager-to-be (Mason Novick) came across her blog and saw talent and originality. Perhaps a freshness that’s not easy to find in L.A. when everyone is going to the same screenwriting workshops, reading the same screenwriting books, going to the same screenwriting expos, and hanging out at the same L.A. restaurants or sitting on the same L.A. freeway.

Thanks in part to the plethora of new books and seminars on screenwriting, a new phenomenon is taking over Hollywood: Major scripts are skillfully, seductively shaped, yet they are soulless. They tend to be shiny but superficial.”
Richard Walter
UCLA Screenwriting Professor

Part of what sets Cody apart is, to use Colin Covert’s phrase, she is “scary-smart.” She had 12 years of Catholic school, was raised in the Chicago suburb of Lemont, and has a Bachelor’s degree in Media Studies from the University of Iowa. While not in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate program, that was part of what attracted her to Iowa. While she had never written a screenplay before Juno, she thought of herself as a writer and had been writing on a regular basis (poems, short stories, etc.) for 15 years before she turned her hand to screenwriting. (Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours)

And I love the fact that not three miles from where Cody wrote Juno is a Minneapolis bar called Grumpy’s where screenwriter Nick Schenk wrote much of Gran Torino that in 2009 would become Clint Eastwood’s highest grossing film that he’s ever starred in. (Screenwriting Postcard from Minneapolis.) If Cody and Schenk don’t inspire you nothing will.

“Aspiring screenwriters always ask what’s the best way to break into the Hollywood? I say move to Minnesota.”
Writer Ken Levine (Frasier, MASH, Cheers)
How to sell a screenplay by drinking in a bar

Thanks again to Ms. Cody for the nudge to jump into the blogging world. And thanks to everyone for stopping by to read what I post, because without readers it would be hard to have written the 600+ posts I’ve written so far.

P.S. In yesterday’s post I mentioned that I’d explain why Clark Gable would be attracted to Diablo Cody and here’s my reasoning. A Time magazine article said, “Gable liked his women to be both sacred and profane.” It doesn’t take much reading about Cody to realize she is both scared and profane. While the profane aspects get more press, Cody’s sacred side is more fascinating to me. And it certainly doesn’t hurt her originality.

Read her 2005 post Finding My Religion to see a theological side to Cody that probably can only be matched in Hollywood by the Calvinist-raised Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver). One thing Cody says she’s never flirted with is atheism. Here’s a sample of her pre-Juno writing;

“I’ve had my share of core-rattling Touched By an Angel moments–brief instances in which God seemed to be standing right beside me, tousling my overprocessed hair like a kind scoutmaster–but most of the spiritual epiphanies I’ve had in my life were far earthier, borne of personal reflection, diverging beliefs, and the admission that I can’t ever fully grasp the sacred.”

Related Post: The Juno-Iowa Connection
Juno Vs. Walt
The Oscars Minnesota Style
The Fox, the Farm, & the Fempire
Life Beyond L.A. (The first blog on January 22, 2008)

Update June 23, 2010: Here is what Diablo Cody (@diablocody) wrote on Twitter: “@scottwsmith_com Thank you for writing that kind and lovely piece. I truly appreciate it.” Yeah, that’s a good way to start your day.

Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Calvin College Bridge

I took the above photo at Calvin College after my screenwriting talks this week. It’s part of Calvin’s Crossing, a pedestrian bridge designed by architect Frank Gorman that spans a little over a football field in length connecting the main parts of campus with the DeVos Communications Center over one of the busiest roads in Grand Rapids.

While the bridge has a practical purpose for Calvin students, it’s a fitting metaphor for all writers, filmmakers, and video producers. Too often creative folks distance themselves from the other disciplines of life. (You could call it a superiority complex.) In fact, there is a growing trend for young filmmakers to just go to film schools that only teach film and digital video production. (Technical skills are always easier to develop than writing. Which is why there are many beautifully photographed movies with shallow stories.)

At Calvin the communication center is where the video and radio studios, the video and film theater, and the video editing suites are all located. But Calvin is a liberal arts school so students head over the bridge to fill their minds with art, literature, languages, philosophy, politics, history, mathematics, religion and science with an emphasis on knowledge and truth rather than livelihood.

The knock on a liberal arts education has always been in line with it doesn’t prepare you for any job except to maybe teach. But if you look at the info where liberal arts grads end up you might conclude that liberal arts majors are prepared for just about every job. Margaret W. Crane wrote in the article For the Love of Learning, “a liberal arts background prepares you to think, analyze, and contribute meaningfully to the world around you.” 
 


While speaking at Calvin this week one of the things I mentioned was when I was a student at the University of Miami a professor told us film school students that you don’t go to school to learn to make films, you go to school to learn what make films about.

Screenwriter/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) did go to UCLA for his Master’s work in film studies, but he did his undergraduate work with an emphasis in pre-seminary at Calvin College. While later rejecting the doctrine, he has credited Calvin College with teaching him to think.

When Suzanne O’Malley, who’s written for the TV show Law & Order, taught a seminar a couple years ago at Yale College called “Writing Hour Long Television Drama” where the class came together to write a 47-minute television program. Something a little different at the liberal arts college.

“We’re drawing from The New York Times, from Shakespeare, from Sun Tzu, from [John Lewis] Gaddis, one of the professors here, looking at all different kinds of serious work and blending that into our plot and story line,” she said in a Yale Daily News article by Andrew Bartholomew.

And just to connect all the dots. Yale is actually made up of 12 residential colleges and the one O’Malley taught at was Calhoun College, which is actually where actress Jodie Foster graduated from with a B.A. (with honors) in literature — after she was nominated for best supporting actress in Taxi Driver. She went on to win two Oscars after graduating from Yale. (Maybe a liberal arts degree should be a requirement for all child actors.)

So at least for Schrader and Foster their undergraduate liberal arts backgrounds haven’t hurt their now pushing 40 year careers in Hollywood.

Even if you’re out of school (or never went to school) read and study widely because it will add richness to your writing and your life.

Text and photo copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: