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Posts Tagged ‘Rod Serling’

The Twilight Zone was in peril of not being renewed, season after season. It was not a hit, rating-wise; succès d’estime, yes but not the sort of series anyone could have predicted would be running thirty years later. [Rod] Serling’s skill as a writer has a lot to do with that…also his compassion for the human race as he saw it around him, from day to day. His optimism about the human condition led to stories that made one feel good about the race and its chances for emotional triumph. That, well told, will always sell.”
Producer Buck Houghton (The Twilight Zone)
What a Producer Does (First published in 1991)

P.S. Look at this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominations and look back on past Oscar-winning Best Pictures and see how many end showing an “emotional triumph.” Not all, but it’s an interesting gauge. And even in death there can be an emotional triumph—Gladiator, Titanic, Braveheart.

Bonus:
“The Twilight Zone at its best is better than anything else I’ve ever seen on television…Walking Distance is maybe the show’s best episode.”
Producer/Writer/director J.J. Abrams (LOST)
Time/ Top 10 Twilight Zone Episodes

Related Posts:
The Twilight Zone Secrets
Rod Serling’s Binghamton Roots
Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany
40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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“Now witness if you will a man’s mind and body shrivelling in the sun, a man dying of loneliness.”
The Twilight Zone, The Lonely  (1959)
Season 1, Episode 7 written by Rod Serling

We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age
The Heart of the Matter
Lyrics by Don Henley, J.D. Souther, Mike Campbell

There’s has to be a part of Spike Jonze that hates all of the comparisons being made about his film HerHere’s the short list I’ve read online; Weird Science, The Stepford Wives, Cherry 2000, Blade Runner, Pinocchio, S1M0ne, and of course, Electric Dreams. But as far as I can find, there is only one film that Jonze has publicly referenced and it’s a Woody Allen film.

“One of the movies I watched when I was writing ['Her'] was ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors,’ because that script is so incredibly written. …There’s a lot of talking about the idea of what the movie is about, but mostly the characters are plowing through the story, and taking you through the story, with their decisions. That was really inspiring.”
Spike Jonze
7 Things To Know About Spike Jonze Directing Her

I imagine there’s another part of Jonze that’s glad people are talking about his film. It’s engaging audiences. It’s starting conversations about what love looks like in the future. What it looks like today. And makes us wonder where all this technology is leading us.

“I think that the movie, to me, is more about our relationship to each other, and our need for intimacy and connection, and the difficulties within ourselves that make that challenging — and the limitations within ourselves that prevent intimacy or connection; when it’s that thing we need, maybe the most. And I think those are timeless things. That kind of loneliness and longing and need for connection, and what connection means and what intimacy means to us. So I think that the parts that are about technology and the parts that are about the way we’re living in this modern world are sort of just the modern set of complications.”
Spike Jonze
Interview with Luke Goodsell

So let me thrown in one more story echo to Her, and it’s one that aired on TV (The Twilight Zone) ten years on before Jonze was born. Written by Rod Serling, The Lonely is about a man sentenced to solitary confinement on an asteroid. As an act of compassion to fight his loneliness, a supply ship leaves the inmate a robot named Alicia. At first he rejects Alicia because she’s fake, but as time goes on he develops feelings towards her. (The whole 24 minute program is below and stars Jack Warden.)

Scott W. Smith

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Over the weekend I saw Saving Mr. Banks and enjoyed it immensely. And there is a line in the film—that I don’t think is a spoiler—that seems to be what the film was about.

“In every movie house, all over the world, in the eyes and the hearts of my kids, and other kids and their mothers and fathers for generations to come, George Banks will be honored. George Banks will be redeemed. George Banks and all he stands for will be saved. Maybe not in life, but in imagination. Because that’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”
Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) in Saving Mr. Banks

That sounds like a pretty strong theme. And I’m fascinated by the topic of theme because I’ve read successful screenwriters and directors say these contradictory things:

A) I never think in terms of theme
B) I usually start with theme
C) The theme reveals itself somewhere in the writing
D) Theme is something the audience sees when the film hits the theaters
E) I avoid writing from theme to avoid the story being message driven
F) I have no clue what the word theme means

So one thing we can learn from Rod Serling, Alexander Payne, Francis Ford Coppola, and others is the process of screenwriting varies from writer to writer.  Which is why you have visually strong writers and dialogue driven writers.

Now I don’t think that Disney line is a direct quote from the Mickey Mouse creator, but from the imagination of the Saving Mr. Banks screenwriter Kelly Marcel.  I don’t know at what point she wrote Disney’s monologue—or if she even thinks that was the theme of the movie—but I do know she in facts does think in terms of theme.

“I’m personally a big fan of knowing what your theme is before starting. I think they can arise as you tell the story, but writing within and for a theme seems to me to help the process along. It allows for much more intricate storytelling, ways of speaking to the theme and letting your theme to speak to you, even unconsciously. I said ‘theme’ four times in that last paragraph. I shouldn’t be allowed to be a writer.”
Screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey)
Go Into the Story Interview with Scott Myers

Related Posts (and a ping pong of views on theme):

Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
More Thoughts on Theme
Theme=What Your Movie is Really About
Theme=Story’s Heart & Soul
Diablo Cody on Theme
Michael Arndt on Theme
Sidney Lumet on Theme
Shane Black on Theme
Wes Anderson on Theme
Lawrence Konner on Theme
Eric Roth on Theme & Loneliness
William Froug on Theme
Aaron Sorkin on Theme, Intention & Obstacles
Diane Frolov & The Theme Zone
Theme vs. Story
“Network” Notes by Paddy Chayefsky
Writing and Directing “Out of Africa”
Serling vs. Coppola

Scott W. Smith

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Several years ago I added the section of postcards to this blog as a shorthand way of keeping this blog rolling when things get super jammed. And they mix it up a little, but sometimes I find that even in a simple photo I can find a tie in to one of the themes of this blog.

Today’s theme I’m tapping into is source. Go back on any writer you admire and see if you can find a source of their inspiration. Often there are a mix of sources that made them become a writer such as the hometown they were raised in (as in Rod Serling’s case), but sometimes it’s singular—perhaps an event, a situation or a teacher.

Today’s photo is just a simple unretouched iPhone photo I took at sunrise Wednesday morning on the last day of a four day shoot I did at the Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando, Florida. Shingle Creek is believed to be the northern most waterway of the Everglades. It’s hard to believe that though I was raised in Central Florida I had never heard of Shingle Creek until this shoot popped up. It’s also hard to believe this creek—this swamp area— is just about a mile away from International Drive—which is one of the most touristy areas of the country—if not the world.

photo-5

Related Post: Rod Serling’s Binghamton Roots

Scott W. Smith 

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Big is one of those rare films that will tickle the funny bone and touch the heart.”
Movie critic Peter Travers (then with People magazine)

“(As a screenwriter) I’m in that emotional place where there is room for idealism. In Big (1988) and Dave (1993) there is a similar question being asked: Is innocence redemptive? And I want people to come away with renewed optimism.”
Four-time Oscar nominated producer/screenwriter Gary Ross (Seabiscuit)
1993 LA Times article 

The following exchange between screenwriters Anne Spielberg and Gary Ross can be seen on the second disc of the expanded edition of Big. The 1988 film brought the screenwriters an Oscar nomination, as well as landing Tom Hanks his first Academy Award nomination.

Gary: If there was a punch line on top of the situation where you could feel the writer—we’d yank it out.  If you were organically laughing at the situation, then than was great, that’s where the comedy should come from. If we went through pages and pages (in reading the script for Big) when you weren’t laughing, that was okay.

Anne: And that’s what gave the poignancy to it—that you’re always on that edge of being a kid on his own, and he can’t go home again. There’s always that little moment of sadness just right around the corner.

Gary: And under a lot of the movie there is a lot of sadness. A loss of childhood is a wonderful and sad thing, and I think we respected both of those emotions. And I think one of the things we did that was good was when the story wasn’t funny to us, but was true to the story—that was okay.

An interesting sidenote to the casting of big; Tom Hanks originally turned now the role in Big, and Anne and Gary (and director Penny Marshall) were working with Robert De Niro to play the role of the boy who wakes up a man. Imagine how different that film would be.

And way back in 1959 a Twilight Zone episode written by Rod Serling called Walking Distance first aired. It’s the story of an ad man who mysteriously returns to his childhood town—and nothing has changed. Rod said it was one of his most personal episodes and the theme of returning to one’s youth was never far from his thoughts. You can read that script at rodserling.com. The small boy in the clip below from that episode was played by Ron Howard.

(Yes, Hollywood is one big family–Ron’s dad, Rance Howard, is an actor, Anne’s brother is Steven, and Gary’s dad, Arthur A. Ross, was a screenwriter —deal with it. Write a script as good as Big and you’ll be in the family as well. One more reason Diablo Cody should be your screenwriting hero—a total Hollywood outsider…until she had a hit film and won a Oscar.)

I think the Big commentary by Anne and Gary is the single best commentary I’ve ever heard on a movie from the perspective of a screenwriter, because it is the only one I know that has the original recordings of the creative process as they developed the story right out of the gate.

Related posts:

It Takes Guts to be a Screenwriter (Gary Ross quote)

Rod Serling’s Binghamton Roots

Writing “Seabiscuit”

The Juno—Iowa Connection

Scott W. Smith

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One of the great things about listening and reading about writers talking about the writing process is you see how everyone’s approach is different. Some write in the morning, some at night, some write quickly in bursts and others methodically take their time. Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) was very successful writing from theme, but fellow Syracuse University grad Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men) has a little different perspective on theme:

“When you’re talking about things like theme you have to be really careful because that’s not what’s going to make the car go. Okay? It’s what’s going to be what makes the car be good and give you a good ride. But that’s not what’s going to make the car go—at least not for me. You know, everybody writes different. But for me I have to stick—really closely, like it’s a life raft— to intention and obstacles. Just the basics of somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it. Make sure you have that cemented in place. Themes will then become apparent to you and you can hang a lantern on the ones you like. Bring them into relief, you can get rid of the ones that aren’t doing you any good and you can paint the car and make it look really nice. But the car isn’t going to turn over unless you see to the basics of drama, and drama is intention and obstacles, somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it.”
Aaron Sorkin
Creative Screenwriting podcast interview by Jeff Goldsmith
December 24, 2010

Related Post: Screenwriting Via Index Cards (Touches on the writing process of Aaron Sorkin.)

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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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I don’t know the context in which Francis Ford Coppola said the below quote, but it offers a contrast to the post where I mentioned that Rod Serling said that be began writing with a theme in mind.

“Sometimes you never really quite understand what the movie’s about until you go into a matinée screening at the Oriental Theater on a Thursday afternoon.”
Francis Ford Coppola
As quoted in Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434

Coppola has had an amazing career, but I can’t help but wonder if not quite understanding what kind of movie you’re making is part of the hit and misses he’s had in his career. And perhaps why people are little confused by some of his films. But keep in mind that even the ambiguous Apocalypse Now, Coppola was nominated for an Oscar for his script.

It also seems to me from Coppola’s interviews and film commentaries that it is clear that on his three Oscar-winning scripts (Patton, The Godfather, The Godfather II) that he was aware of themes of the movies he was writing.

Scott W. Smith

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“I don’t think that calling something commercial makes it stink.”
Rod Serling

“A legend doesn’t die, just because the man dies.”
The Twilight Zone episode A Game of Pool

Rod Serling was born in Syracuse, New York and joined the U.S. Army the day after he graduated from Binghamton Central High School where he had worked on the school newspaper. During World War II he fought in the Philippines where he routinely saw the casualties of war that would shape his life and writing. He was injured himself , received the Purple Heart, and was discharged in 1946.

Afterwards he attended Anitoch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio where he got involved in theater and writing radio dramas. He received his BA degree in 1950 and moved to Cincinnati to work in advertising writing for radio and television. In less than ten years he created his signature show, The Twilight Zone.

In 1959 Mike Wallace interviewed Serling was interviewed on TV  and told about how in 1951, at a diner in Cincinnati, he decided to leave the security of his advertising job in Ohio to write freelance for television programs.

“The immediate motive at the time, the prodding thing that pushed me in to it, was that I had been writing at the time for a Cincinnati television station as a staff writer—which is a particularly dreamless occupation, composed of doing commercials. Even making up testimonial letters. As I recall there was a liquid drug on the market at the time that could cure everything from arthritis to a fractured pelvis and I actually had to write testimonial letters, and on that particular day I’d just had it. And though I had been freelancing concurrent with the staff job, the best year I’d ever had (freelance-wise)  I think we netted $700 which is hardly even grocery money, and that one night we just decided to sink or swim and go into it.”
Rod Serling

Serling swam. He would have been 27-28 years old at the time and six months after that decision he moved to Connecticut and then New York. Serling kept building his career in TV and one of the first programs to show his genius was Requiem for a Heavyweight for the Playhouse 90 TV series in 1956.  But his greatest success came when he launched the The Twilight Zone on CBS on October 2, 1959.

Despite its enduring popularity, The Twilight Zone didn’t draw large audiences, nor was it a financial success for CBS when it first aired. The show was cancelled in 1964. Serling whose normal workload was 12-14 hour a days, seven days a week was burned out on TV. He wrote well more than half of the 156 episodes, and grew tired of having to fight the corporate sponsors and the censorship imposed on him.

Not thinking The Twilight Zone would have much of a future he sold his rights to the show for $500,000. which would have cost him and his estate tens of millions of dollars. He turned to teaching in his later years and died at the young age of 50.

P.S. A couple of days ago I said that at one time Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise and George Clooney all lived in Kentucky at the same time. Well, just over the Ohio River at one time Rod Serling and Steven Spielberg would have lived in Ohio at the same time. In fact, I’m not sure how long Spielberg lived in Ohio, but he was born in Cincinnati in 1946 so he could have even been in the same city—heck, at the same diner—as Serling when he had his epiphany. Maybe not a big deal, unless you believe in another dimension, a dimension of both shadow and substance, a dimension only found…in The Twilight Zone.

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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